Working at the Bath Works
Clarence Dargie was once a worker at the Bath Iron Works at the time they were building the Sumner Class Destroyers. The following is a transcript of a speech he gave at a USS WALKE DD-723 reunion in Tampa, Florida. He has been so kind as to share this with us. Clarence writes “I was a rivet heater and heated the rivets that put together the keel as well as some of the hull plates, closing in plates over the fire rooms , depth charge racks aft, and several other parts of the hull and deckhouses. The story should be of interest to the DeHaven vets because she also had my father's dove, blessing and about a hundred signatures of shipyard workers (including mine) sealed on a bulkhead somewhere below deck. The same is true for all the destroyers that followed the Walke down the ways at the Bath Iron Works, ie, the 724 (Laffey), the 725, 726 ,727, etc., right up to the end of the war. That is my father's legacy to the men who sailed those vessels”.
A few months ago I wrote to Ray Harves (Sec/Treas of USS WALKE DD-723 Association). I did work on the DD 723 over 50 years ago and I picked up a copy of Highways magazine a few months ago, and I saw this little ad that said, "Anyone who had served on the DD 723" and that DD 723 jumped out, and you'll know when I get through here, why it did. So I immediately called Ray, and told him about my interest in the DD 723, and later I wrote him a letter relating a little incident that happened that I'm going to recite tonight if you'll bear with me.
First off, someone told me at, one time or other, that you can always tell the difference between a fairy tale and a war story, because a fairy tale begins with, "Once upon a time", and a war story begins with, "Honest to God, guys, this is the truth".
So I'm going to start off by saying, "Honest, this is the truth". This story primarily concerns, well, the cast of characters in this little story is, of course, the DD 723, and my father, Alfred Dargie, and every person in this room, directly and indirectly.
A little background on my father: he died, by the way, on the 14th of December, 1967, just a few days short of his 78th birthday. He was the first child of my grandfather and grandmother. He was born in 1890 , and by the time he was 8 years old, he was the oldest of 8 children. My grandfather didn't have any use for education-he thought that education was a detriment to making money, so he took my father out of school after having completed the 3rd grade and brought him to work with him in the cotton mills, as an apprentice loom-fixer. Those are the people that repair and maintain all the machinery, the complex machinery, that goes into the weaving of cloth.
By the time he was 14, he was the oldest of 14 children. He decided there was no future in the business he was in, and so he left and went out on his own. Strangely enough, in a short period of time, he was a renowned artist. He was making a very comfortable living as an artist, free-lance artist, and as a designer of jewelry. We can well wonder how a person 14 years old, with a 3rd grade education, enters the art world and is an immediate success.
He had a God-given gift; my father had the gift of art that I've never seen in anyone anywhere in my life. With a pen in his hand, and India ink and drawing paper, he could come up with the most beautiful, absolutely beautiful, etchings you have ever seen. And so for 10 years he made his living that way, as an artist and as a designer of jewelry.
By the time he was 24, he had married my mother, and my oldest brother had been born. And one day he had to make a decision, he said to my mother, "I'm making good money as an artist, but my heart isn't in it". He knew, he understood, and he loved machinery. He said "the money is with the art, but my heart is with machinery. I have to make that decision, and I can't go on this way. I'm going back and work with machinery". And he did. And the rest of his life, he made his living as a mechanic and working on machinery.
In 1941, Dec. 7, 1941, the war started, my father was working at the Bath Iron Works and I was working in a woolen mill. There came a call suddenly, of course, for defense workers right after Pearl Harbor, and within less than a month I found myself working on a riveting crew at the Bath Iron Works.
Up until that time, I say during that period of time, we were building the Fletcher class destroyer. But early 1943, they shifted over to the Sumner class, and of course, in the hysteria of the war years, when you shift from one type of ship to another type it seems not everyone gets the message. There's a lot of coordinating, a lot of communications, there are a lot of sub-contractors scattered here and there at different plants and at different places where different things are made: they were made at the specifications of the Fletcher class. A lot of the pieces arrived, that were going onto the Fletcher class that really didn't fit the Sumners. We had problems..
I remember especially the Barton, as was mentioned a little while ago, the DD 722. We had problems--blueprints were not right, things were not going well, and we began to get a little bit worried about that. And then we laid the keel for the DD 723. incidentally, I was the one who heated the rivets that put the keel together, the first two pieces of that ship to go together.
As this thing began to form, the poor old DD723, God rest her rusty soul, she soon had the reputation of being a Jonah. Nothing fit. Murphy's law prevailed: if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, and believe me it went wrong more than once or twice. I can remember that poor ship being put together amid cussing and discussing. shipfitters yelling at the lead man "my God, we can't get this job done--these parts don't fit". The lead man half in jest saying "don't force it, go get a bigger hammer". I knew that something was wrong from the beginning. Now, when we put the keel together, these are two great big long steel plates that have the ribs of the ship and the 7 inch rivets that go through there. Now when you put the rivets in, the holes are supposed to be lined up. Right? WRONG. The holes weren't lined up, so we had to have a driller there. He would drill, ream out 3 holes, we would put in 3 rivets, and each time he'd drill 3 more, we'd put in 3 rivets. In a more serious vein, this thing really was a Jonah. We got to the point for example where we were going to put the drive shafts in--the drive shafts are those long pieces of steel that connect the engines with the propellers in the back, for the benefit of you ladies that might not understand.
And lo and behold, they wouldn't go in because we found the poor thing was sitting crooked and it was warped. She was higher on the Port side forward than the Starboard side forward, and higher on the Starboard side aft then the Port side aft. Therefore the bearings, the shaft would not line up, the shaft wouldn't go in. We had to stack 35 tons of lead along the high side forward, and then the straightening crews had to get on the straightening underneath and start heating the plates--you heat a spot red hot, then spray it with water, and heat another one, spray it with water, and do this down for about 50 feet, and then drop down about another foot and do the same thing.
This would slowly draw those plates down, taking that warp out of it. The same thing was being done aft 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 3 days, the straightening crews worked with this lead pushing down and drawing the plates down. When we went to put the deck house on, now the deck houses were built at the Harding plant some distance away from Bath, arrived on flat cars, were picked up--theoretically now, by this time the ship fitters had scribed on the deck the exact place where these deck houses should fit. It was like when we were kids when we played hop-scotch, you ladies remember--you drew this little thing with all these boxes. In your minds eye, remember that.
These same outlines were drawn, and each one of these little rectangles represented a deck house that theoretically, when the crane swung it over and dropped it down, it should exactly cover those lines. Wrong, it didn't. Where there was a steam pipe that came up through, the blue prints called for a hole in the deck and it was burned right here, and the deck house would fit over it, and then the steam pipe would fit and join and everything would be fine except for one thing. The steam pipe came up this way, and a bundle of cables came the other way.
Now, we're laughing, but it was true, those are things we had to overcome. This worried my father because shipbuilders are a superstitious lot. When a ship shows signs of being a Jonah early in it's career, usually that reputation follows it, and it's a Jonah until it goes to it's tomb. This worried him, because he said "we're going to have a lot of fine young men that are going to sail that ship into combat, and if it fights them as hard in combat as it did on the ways, they're going to be in trouble".
Eventually, one day I was working on the WALKE and in our different duties, occasionally we worked in the same general area. We were working on the WALKE, and this was right at the time when the painters would come in and were painting below deck, putting the zinc chromate on the bare steel bulkheads/ and preparing to paint them. They hadn't done that yet, and we were all around working, and finally the noon-time whistle blew, so we sat around in the compartment eating lunch, and my father picked a soapstone, and for you ladies, a soapstone is to a steel bulkhead what chalk is to a blackboard. He picked up this chalk and he began drawing. I thought at first he was drawing his logo. My fathers logo was a swan. He could do it in one continuous swirling motion, and draw this beautiful swan, and it was his logo. Remember "Kilroy--Kilroy was here"? whenever you saw that little "Kilroy was here"? Well, whenever you saw a swan drawn anywhere in the Bath Iron Works, Fred was here. He didn't sign off his work Alfred Dargie, he signed with a swan.
I thought he was drawing his swan, but he wasn't. Under his talented hand there began to emerge this beautiful dove in flight, at the background of white billowy clouds, and the sunshine behind the clouds, breaking bursts of sunlight coming through, and under this he drew a scroll. And so people began gathering around and looking at this, and he drew this scroll. And my father had taught himself calligraphy. He had the most beautiful Spencerian script I have ever seen. And in his beautiful Spencerian script, on that banner he wrote "God bless this ship and all who sail on her". And I don't know if he turned around and handed me the soapstone, or if I took it from his hand, but the next thing I knew I took it and I signed my name. And then as if it were planned, one at a time the dozen or so people, painters, chippers, shipfitters, welders that were watching us, one at a time stepped up and each one signed his name to that scroll. And the noontime whistle blew--lunch time was over, and the painter picked up his paint gun and very reluctantly sprayed over that bulkhead, sealing out the rust, which was inevitably to come, and also sealing my father's blessing into that bulkhead. And I asked him later why he had used the dove as the symbol. And he said at first he had thought of drawing Jesus on the cross, and asking God's blessing, but then it came to him he said, there will be some in the future that will not be Christians, and it probably wouldn't be fair' to them, so the dove is universally accepted because to the Christians the dove is a symbol of the holy spirit and to non-Christians it is the symbol of peace. So it would be acceptable to whoever served on that ship. And therefore started a little tradition called "the signing", and every destroyer from there on in to the end of the war, when the contract ceased, when it reached that stage of construction the people would say "Fred, when are you going to have the signing, and my father said probably Tuesday, and the word would spread through the shipyard, and on that Tuesday at noontime, people would come from all over the shipyard and stand and watch my father draw his dove of peace, the scroll with his name, and everyone would sign. And I have seen bulkheads completely, compartments completely filled with signatures/ even some of them writing on the overhead. People that never set foot on a boat.
There were accountants and bookkeepers from the other side of the yard that had no business on the ship, but you would see them in their white shirts and neckties signing. It was a tradition that was carried on.
This is a story that I hadn't told before because I didn't have the proper forum. That was 50 years ago. A little while ago, I asked what the count was tonight, how many people we had here, and I was told there was 130 people here tonight in this room. Now I'm going to submit to you that there are 130 bodies and there are 131 souls—and to that one extra soul—I say "Thanks pop". Thank you.