Random Recollections
by FQC Gardner

Copyright, all rights reserved


20. SUBMARINE NETS.

On my reporting to General Weaver he said, "The fleet is in route from Guantanamo to the York River where it will concentrate. The Navy Department is greatly concerned lest it be attacked while in route, or after concentrating, by German submarines. They have requested me most urgently to put down a submarine net across the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay by the time the Fleet arrives there. I have told him we would do it if it could possibly be done. I want you to do it. Can you?"

The Army had never previously had any thing to do with submarine nets. I had never seen one, nor had I ever seen a description of one. I knew, however, that the British Navy had laid extensive nets, and I assumed that our Navy had doubtless received reports from some of our observers relative to these nets. I told him that I would let him know as soon as I could. I knew that the section of Navy Ordnance that handled submarine mines also handled submarine nets, and I hastened to confer with them. I asked if they had any reports covering the British nets. They told me they would find out. In about an hour they brought in a single sheet of paper, showing a rectangle with some vertical and horizontal lines in it and with the following notation, "Net sections 600 feet long. Depth depending on hydrographic conditions. Made of 1/8" steel cable. This was all the information they had.

The entrance to Chesapeake Bay is about ten miles wide. We got out some Navy hydrographic maps and agreed upon the best location for a net. I took the map, went to the Army and Navy Club, got a room, and spent the remainder of the day and most of the night making up an estimate of the material which I thought might be required to construct a net in the desired location.

Under the assumption that 1/2" cable (instead of 1/8") would be used, I finally estimated that some 35000 or more clamps and sockets, of perhaps a dozen types, and some 75 miles of 1/2" and 1" cable would be required. Next morning I drafted a letter to the John A. Roebling Co. at Roebling, N. J., (the largest manufacturers of wire rope), from whom I had bought considerable amounts of marline covered wire rope for mooring mines, for the signature of the Secretary of War, authorizing them to furnish me any material that I might consider necessary. I called up one of the young Roeblings, whom I knew, at Roebling, N. J., told him I would arrive on the afternoon train to purchase a very large amount of wire rope and fittings for immediate use, and asked him to have assembled, upon my arrival, the heads of his departments, a draftsman and some clerks, and to have ready an Inventory Sheet showing the quantities of wire rope and fittings on hand at Roebling or in New York. I also told him that I must take all this material with me on the train to New York and asked him to make arrangements for the necessary rail transportation to New York, and to reserve space for the shipment of all this material on the Old Dominion Line boat sailing next day from New York to Fort Monroe.

When I arrived at the factory and explained the situation I was at once advised that no fittings of the types I had listed existed in this country, and that to provide the lengths of cable required it would be necessary to use all the cable, irrespective of size, that could possibly be secured. After much discussion, in which the Roebling engineers gave all the assistance possible, it was decided that all joints or crossings of the cable would have to be made by siezings of galvanized wire upon which melted zinc spelter would be poured. They removed from the factory floor all the large spelter pots they had. We had the draftsman make a drawing of the general details of a proposed net section, and I dictated a description of the procedure to be followed in assembling a section (600 feet long) on shore and in placing it in position in the net field. Copies of the Blueprints and of Mimeographed instructions were immediately mailed to the Commanding Officer, Fort Monroe, with a letter explaining the circumstances and directing that the work be carried on continuously until completed. The material was shipped to New York that night and thence to Fort Monroe the next day.

While en route to New York I had time to consider what kind of buoys might be used to support the net sections, and I decided that 55 gallon gasoline drums would be suitable. Upon arriving in New York I saw my bride long enough for us to arrange for her to go up to the Cowdin's, at Mt. Kisco, and remain there until I could go to Fort Totten, and then I started out to secure the number fo gasoline drums needed. It took some time to find out how to find out how many such drums could be gotten. I was dumbfounded to learn that the number of empty drums on hand at any one time in New York was negligible so far as my requirements were concerned.

After considering every possibility I could think of I then decided to use beer kegs. I had often seen, while on the street after the theater, great trucks loaded with empty beer kegs and had no doubt but that, with all the thirsty people in New York, there must be an almost unlimited quantity of empty beer kegs awaiting somewhere to be refilled. After even more difficulty than I had experienced in the case of the gasoline drums, I finally found out, believe it or not, that there were never more than several hundred empty beer kegs on hand at any one time in New York. I needed some 7000.

I had taken a room at the old downtown Army and Navy Club, and had but very little sleep for several days. That evening I was sitting in my room, turning the situation over in my mind. The material for the net, other than the buoys, was on its way to Fort Monroe, and I could see no possible way of securing, in time, 7000 beer kegs. I was pretty low in spirits. There was a knock on the door and I opened it. There stood a man, obviously a Jew, large, heavy set, with coarse features and straight, black hair, wearing at least a No. 17 collar, with rolls of fat festooned over it. I had had occasion to observe, in New York, a large number of Jews, of somewhat similar appearance, who were obviously rolling in money from war contracts, and I sized him up as being a typical representative of that type. He introduced himself as Mr. Sultzberger (or something like that), said he had come to New York on business from his home somewhere in West Virginia, that he was a manufacturer of beer kegs and had just learned from one of his friends who owned a brewery that I was very anxious to buy 7000 beer kegs.

I explained the situation to him, indicating its seriousness to the Fleet, and told him that it was correct that I had to have 7000 beer kegs delivered at Fort Monroe within a week. He studied quite a while and finally said, "My factory is one of the biggest in the country. I now have a contract for 3000 beer kegs, about 2000 of which are now ready for delivery. I am working but one relief. By increasing the size of one relief and by working three reliefs I can deliver 3000 kegs to you tomorrow and the remaining 4000 within a week. You can probably arrange for their shipment by express to Fort Monroe. I will charge you the same price I am getting for my peacetime contract. I have a boy who has volunteered for enlistment in the Army, and I would like to do what I can to help defend the United States."

I accepted his offer at once. No man with whom I had dealings during the War rendered more arduous, more effective, more patriotic cooperation than did Mr. Sultzberger. I have mentioned this incident because it shows how easy it is to misjudge a man from initial impressions. I think also that this may perhaps be considered as another example of that delicate balance, between success and failure, of which I have spoken before.

By dint of the unremitting labors of the officers and men at Fort Monroe, the net was in place in time to meet the Navy needs. This is the only instance I know of where beer kegs became munitions of war.

Within a few days it was possible for me to go back to Fort Totten, and, as the gate leg table had by then arrived, my bride came down from Mt. Kisco and I carried her across the threshold of our new home, in the traditional manner.

The War Department shortly approved the installation of antisubmarine nets or booms (a single heavy cable, for use in shallow water) in practically all harbors in the United States and in Panama, and I started work immediately to effect the procurement of the new and more elaborately designed nets. By this time, a British Naval officer, who had been engaged in submarine net work with the British Admiralty, had arrived in this country with two complete sets of drawings of the British nets. As I recall it there were some 200 different items involved. The Navy Department took one set and I took the other. Each Department undertook to design its own nets.

I organized a three-man Committee, consisting of an engineer from each of the Roebling Co. and the U. S. Steel and Wire Co. (the two largest manufacturers of steel rope and fittings) and myself, to meet at Ft. Totten and to design all the fittings required, as no designs for any of them existed in this country. It was interesting to see how that worked. After studying the British designs, they agreed that the British fittings, while doubtless satisfactory, were very much heavier than necessary and were not well adapted to rapid quantity production. The purpose and requirements of each fitting were analyzed; then each engineer drew up a rough sketch of a design. After discussion another design, upon the details of which we were all three agreed, was prepared, and a sketch was sent to each factory, where a sample was made up by hand. This sample was given a breakdown test to determine its weakest dimension and a new and final design, embodying the lessons learned from all these tests, was made, all parts made in both factories to be interchangeable.

The British used two types of large buoys (between the net sections); in water areas covered by the fire of shore batteries they used steel peg top buoys of the type used for marking channels in the United States; in water areas beyond the range of shore guns, where a peg top steel buoy could be sunk by enemy small arms or other fire, they used massive wooden buoys, built up of timbers one foot square and ten feet long which were bolted together, since such buoys could not easily be sunk by enemy fire action. I first planned to use wooden buoys. I was surprised, however, that the total quantity of such timbers available in the United States was probably insufficient to meet my requirements, and the timber that would actually be used for these buoys was then still growing in the forests of Washington and Oregon. I then decided to use the peg top buoys. However, I found out, on inquiry, that the peg top buoys had always been made by one manufacturer who had a small shop on the Hudson River, with a maximum output of 4 or 5 buoys a month. I needed some 300. Eventually I designed a cylindrical buoy about 4 feet in diameter and 8 feet long, which could readily be built in quantity from standard commercial steel plates. For these buoys, the mushroom anchors designed weighed 5000 pounds, the biggest such anchors that had ever been made in this country. For mooring the buoys very heavy chains (one link weighed 70 pounds) were required in large quantity. I asked the six biggest manufacturers of chain in the country to meet me in New York. In this conference I learned that no two of them used the same process for welding or the same kind of iron. After much conferring with a large steel and iron manufacturer they all agreed on a specification for iron that they thought all could use. I agreed to furnish the iron. I placed a contract which took half the entire output of the chain manufacturers of the country for three months. (Incidentally some of them found that they were unable to use the iron thus procured, and this caused considerable difficulty at the Depot afterwards.)

One day early in June, about the time that the design of the new nets was completed, I received a telegram from the War Department stating that I was to be detailed on the General Staff and ordering me to proceed to Washington. I did so. General Weaver immediately protested to the chief of Staff that the order had been issued without consulting him, and that my services at the Torpedo Depot could not be spared at that time. This order was revoked promptly and I was ordered to return to my duties at Fort Totten.

While I was packing my bag at the Army and Navy Club, I received a telephone call from Major Graves, the Secretary of the General Staff, stating that the Chief of Staff, General T. H. Bliss (whom I had known at Fort Totten), desired me to report to him in his office at once. I did so. He told me to sit down. He asked me, "How soon can you leave Washington?" I replied that I could leave on the next train. He said, "Do you have a vest?" I replied that I did. He got up, went to the door, opened it quietly and looked up and down the hall. Then coming back to his desk, he opened a drawer, took out a paper and rang the buzzer for the Chief Clerk. When the Clerk came in General Bliss said, "I want you to witness that I give this sealed secret document to Captain Gardner." He place the paper in a plain envelope, sealed it with sealing wax, and handed it to me. He then said, "You will take this envelope to New York. When your train reaches Trenton send a telegram to Colonel So and So, Room So and So, Army Building, 39 Whitehall Street, stating when you will arrive in New York. Upon arriving report in person to him at the Army Building and he will give you further instructions. You should know that this paper is a very important one and that it is possible that enemy agents may try to get possession of it." He added the suggestion that I carry the paper in the inside pocket of my vest, and dismissed me with his good wishes.

This was my first (and only) experience with Cloak and Dagger stuff, and, as I had not, at that time, had the opportunity to see any TV or Movie shows on the subject, I didn't feel that I knew much about the methods of enemy agents. I got another envelope, of the same size, placed several blank sheets in it, sealed it up with sealing wax, and put it into my brief case, which I carried with the utmost care. On the train every passenger became an object of suspicion. When we reached Trenton I walked through the train until I was directly opposite the station, jumped off, ran to the telegraph office and sent my telegram, and hastily retraced my steps to my own car. When we arrived in New York it was dark. I hurried out to the taxi stand, jumped into the second taxi, got out on the other side, jumped into the fourth one, and told the driver to pull out at once. When he had done so I told him to speed up to a subway station which I knew was near the Army Building, where I jumped out and ran to the Army Building. The offices were dark, but on going to the designated room I found the Colonel to whom I was to report. We took an official car and speeded to an up town hotel. We went up to an upper floor, knocked on the door, and were admitted to a room filled with officers. I recognized Gen. Sibert and some other officers I knew to be on his staff. I delivered my envelope to him and he gave me a receipt. He opened the envelope, read the message, and said: "Please report to me on the dock at the Port of Embarkation at Hoboken tomorrow morning at eight o'clock."

I telephoned my bride that I thought it was possible that I was going overseas next day. When I reported to Gen. Sibert next morning he told me that there were three ships there which he was going to inspect to determine whether or not they were all ready for use by embarking troops, and that he desired that I accompany him. We spent the day inspecting these ships. When we finished he told me to prepare a report to the Chief of Staff covering the inspection, and to have it ready for his signature at 7 o'clock next morning. I recalled having seen a typewriter in a room on one of the ships, and I looked for it. When I found it I discovered that it was an old one and that the letters on the keys were mostly worn off. I had not had occasion to use a typewriter for several years, and I had never been at all proficient in the use of the touch system. My report (very much like this typing -- which I am quite confident you have long since recognized as being mine) was certainly not a model of neat and accurate typing. Next morning General Sibert and I met an incoming train at 7:30 and General Bliss himself got off. General Sibert thanked me and told me that was all for me.

I had brought him the final orders for the first movement of U. S. troops to France, and they were embarked during the day -- without me.


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