"Mr. de Camp . . . ?"
Early in 1942, with the United States engaged in World War II, the science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) realized he needed to do his bit. At the suggestion of his friend, fellow-science fictioneer Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1998), a former naval officer (USNA, 1929), who was working as a civilian scientist in a laboratory at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, de Camp applied for a commission in the Navy.
After the paperwork made its way through the system, de Camp was ordered to appear before a board of officers to assess his suitablility for a commission. The board, composed of crusty old salts, some of whom had been pulled out of retirement to assist in the war effort, reviewed his qualifications and found them excellent. De Camp had received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Cal Tech in 1930 and a master’s from Stevens Institute three years later.
Then came the time for some general questions. One or another of the officers made some innocuous inquiries, but de Camp could sense that there was something wrong, a tension among the interviewers.
Finally, one of the officers almost abashedly asked, “Mr. de Camp, why do you write?”
De Camp replied, “Why, to make money.”
At that, there was an immediate reduction in the tension in the room; the board members, hard-headed realists all, apparently had feared that he would start talking about an inner compulsion to pursue his art or some other touchy-feely explanation, and were pleased to learn that his muse was driven by the need to make a living, since during the Depression he had been unable to find work as an aeronautical engineer. De Camp was commissioned a lieutenant.
Commission in hand, de Camp was recruited by Heinlein to work with him in the aviation materials lab at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Another co-worker was Isaac Asimov (c. 1920-1992), a young science fiction writer and scientist who had also been recruited by Heinlein. They were part of a team that performed technical anlysis and evaluation of materials. Conspiracy theorists, of course, believe the three were deeply involved in the “Philadelphis Experiment,” in which the Navy supposedly dematerialzed a destroyer and teleported it, wrecking much hovac among the crew.
De Camp emerged from the war as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. Years later, he wrote a short poem about his military experience, “Warriors,” comparing himself, in his gold braided sleeves ordering materials tests, to various well-muscled sword-wielding warriors of the past, performing heroic feats on the battlefield.
L. Sprague de Camp, one of the most notable writers of “The Golden Age of Science Fiction,” is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp.
L. Sprague de Camp’s Time and Chance: An Autobiography (Hampton Falls, N.H.: Donald M. Grant, 1996) includes an account of his naval career, and much else besides. The poem “Warriors” is in de Camp’s Demons and Dinosaurs
(Sauk City, WI: Arham House, 1970)
The U.S.S. Oregon's Second "Dash" Around South America
Many know of the famed “dash” of the battleship Oregon (BB-3) from San Francisco around Latin America in 1898, a 14,700 mile voyage, in order to join the fleet at Key West to help fight in the Spanish-American War, a feat accomplished in just 66 days.
Well, after supporting the blockade of Cuba, and then fighting in the Battle of Santiago (July 3), Oregon proceeded to New York for an overhaul. This was completed in September, by which time an armistice was in place but the war not yet officially over. President William McKinley promptly issued confidential orders to the ship’s skipper, Captain Albert S. Barker, to take command of a “Special Service Squadron” composed of the Oregon and the Iowa (BB-4), plus the store ship Celtic and seven colliers, and proceed around South America to Honolulu and thence on to Manila, to reinforce Commodore George Dewey’s little squadron there, just in case peace talks broke down, or some other untoward development occurred (such as German intervention).
By October 10th the Oregon, Iowa, and Celtic had assembled at New York, while the colliers had already been dispatched to various rendezvous points along the planned route. Providing a little “cover” for the operation, orders were published instructing Barker to proceed to Rio de Janeiro to represent the United States at the inauguration of President Manuel Campos Sales of Brazil, scheduled for the following month.
The task force sailed from New York on October 12th, coaled at Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, and reached Rio on November 11th. There it joined the international naval squadron that had gathered to honor the new Brazilian president. Days of ceremonies, gala reception, salutes, and other such activities followed, which, Barker recalled, were "wearing both for body and mind," before the actual inauguration, on the 15th, which was attended by the ships’ officers. On the 18th, the newly inaugurated President Campos Sales paid a formal visit to the Oregon.
The following day, the colliers once more having already departed, Oregon, Iowa, and Celtic sailed for Montevideo.
At Montevideo there were more gala receptions and courtesy calls, including a visit by President Juan Lindolfo Cuesta, and a round of naval reviews and ceremonies with visiting warships (the Argentine and Italian naval officers present honored Barker by treating him as a flag officer, since he was commanding a squadron, a gesture much appreciated by the American sailors). On December 10th, as the squadron prepared for sea, word arrived that peace had been concluded between the United States and Spain. This news was accompanied by orders to proceed to Valparaiso.
Barker took the squadron to Punta Arenas, Chile, where the battleships coaled. Then the entire squadron, colliers and all, proceeded through the Straits of Magellan, in a blinding snowstorm. The squadron arrived at Valparaiso on December 17th. Although the colliers were soon under way again, Oregon, Iowa, and Celtic spent several days at Valparaiso, with the usual round of parties, diplomatic visits, and naval reviews. Then the squadron proceeded to Callao, in Peru, arriving on December 26th. After coaling at Callao, there were more receptions and reviews and such, including a visit to the flagship by Peruvian Present Nicolás de Piérola. While at Callao, Iowa was inspected and her boilers were found to be in need of retubing. Communicating this news to the Navy Department, Barker received orders to dispatch Iowa to San Francisco in company with the Celtic, and proceed with the rest of the squadron to Hawaii.
After a brief stop in the Galapagos to recoal and make a couple of minor repairs, the colliers headed for the West Coast while proceeded alone to Honolulu, where she arrived on February 5, 1899.
There Oregon ended her second “dash” around Latin America.
The voyage of the Oregon and Iowa was one of the longest movements by a battle squadron since the advent of the steam powered iron warship, and represented an early demonstration of American skill at logistical planning