Out of the Navy and Into a Cold War Job: “You Know Anything about Celestial Navigation?”

By Walter Davie

It was June 1954, the day after graduation. I had just received my shiny electrical engineering diploma from the imposing and stentorian UC President Robert Gordon Sproul. After finishing dinner with my proud parents, then bidding them a safe journey back to my hometown Los Angeles, I returned to my room in dear old Bowles Hall and began the Augean task of packing my stuff and loading it into my trusty 1941 Plymouth.

I had arrived as a UC Berkeley freshman in the good old days of fall 1949. Times were tough then for engineers. The nation was nearing the end of the five-year “peace scare,” that period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean “conflict.” The military/industrial complex was at a low ebb.

I headed to registration and paid my tuition, which in those days was in the two digits. Mandatory ROTC was in effect, but it did offer each graduate an officer’s reserve commission. I had spent my childhood during WW II on a Shell Oil pipeline pump station in Tracy and was familiar with big steam engines, so I chose the Navy.

The curriculum each week was three hours of classroom and two hours of close-order marching drill on a nearby athletic field. We studied historical naval battles, gunnery, ship handling and naval protocol. This in addition to the chemistry, math, and physics classes of aspiring engineers.

My studies proceeded at a steady pace—and then temptation set in, in the form of fascinating extracurricular organizations. There was glee club, and acting club, and hiking club, which meant weekends in Yosemite. My grade point average slumped.

Someone noticed.

That someone was Chester W. Nimitz Jr., son of the famous WW II Admiral, a climber in the ranks of the Navy, and executive officer of the UC Naval ROTC unit. One morning, I was called upon his carpet.

I saluted and entered. Commander Nimitz was a crisp and very military Annapolis officer who did not suffer fools gladly. He was holding my UC dossier in his hand.

“Davie, I’ve been looking at your grade point average, and I am sorry to say that I don’t believe that you are Naval Officer material,” he said. “We are going to have to let you go.”

I was stunned and suddenly felt like Alfred Dreyfus being publicly stripped of his epaulettes. After regaining my composure, I apologized and managed to convince him to let me take two courses: Torpedo Guidance Gyroscopes in my junior year, and the Celestial Navigation course a year later. He relented—but made clear there would be no commission, only University credit.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll continue the classes and the marching.” I saluted again and left his office. I cleaned up my act and started getting Bs and the occasional A in Electrical Engineering. This finally led to that fine day when UC President Sproul handed me my diploma.

Now I had to get a job, fast. The Korean War was winding down, but the Cold War was ratcheting up. Males of my age were still subject to the draft, and my student deferment was expiring. I passed through Sather Gate on the way to my car when I noticed that the street was lined with small groups of people sitting behind card tables. Only these people weren’t espousing various religious or political views. They were representing big defense contractors. Given that most of my classmates, including the engineers, were heading to Korea, I decided to stop by General Electric.

“Yes, we are looking for engineers,” they said. “But first you need to take our two-year indoctrination course in Schenectady.” I demurred.

I approached Boeing, but was suddenly reminded of Seattle’s dreary weather, and veered in another direction. Then I was standing in front of Lockheed. They were receptive, but Burbank was a 30-mile commute from my folks’ place.

The last table belonged to Northrop, a company located at the Hawthorne airport, only nine miles from home.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“We can’t tell you.”

“Is it vital defense work?”

“You better believe.”

“Are you looking for engineers?”

“Yes,” they said, “but we are looking for some very specialized skills.”

“Such as?”

“Do you know anything about guidance gyroscopes?”

“Yes, I took the Navy course in torpedo gyros last year.”

The interviewer’s eyebrows went up a notch.

“Do you know anything about celestial navigation?”

“Yes, I just finished the Navy course in celestial navigation.”

His companion pulled out a form from a briefcase and handed it to me.

“Sign here. Welcome to Northrop Corporation!” 

Walter Davie did eventually move out of his parents’ house, though not out of L.A. And he never did get drafted.

 

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.
Image source: Illustration by Dan Hubig
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