York Native Expert Witness on Sinkings of Both the Titanic and U.S.S. Maine
This week’s Sunday News carried a story about a new book titled What Really Sank the Titanic. The authors came to a different conclusion that that offered by Rear Admiral Richard M. Watt, expert witness and York native, who testified in the 1915 White Star Line liability trial.
Watt, former Chief Constructor in the U.S. Navy faulted the owners, the White Star Line, for not allowing the builders to install longitudinal bulkheads and water-tight doors on the Titanic.
In their new book Timothy Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty blame the builders, Harland and Wolff, Belfast, Ireland. They say that in their haste to get the ship done, they bought rivets from several suppliers, and the rivets were not all of the same quality. The authors say testing on several of the metal rivets indicate that some were stronger than others, and that difference in strength contributed to the Titanic sinking so fast. The company disputes the accusation.
Either way, the Titanic tragedy may have been at least partially caused by cost-cutting and hasty construction.
Admiral Watt, as Chief Constructor, was also one of a team of five Navy and Army officers that inspected the wreck of the battleship U.S.S. Maine after it was raised in Havana harbor in 1911. The sinking of the ship in 1898 initiated the Spanish-American War. After their hands-on examination Watt and his colleagues “reaffirmed that the ship was sunk by an exterior explosion.”
Below is the York Sunday News column I wrote a few months ago on Watt, second generation Yorker of Scots-Irish descent, and his son, who also became an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Watt, a Naval Family
We recently read the news that native Yorker, U.S. Navy Captain Chip Miller, has been named captain of the new aircraft carrier named for former president Bush. Several York Countians in the past have also attained high levels of responsibility and rank in the Navy. A Civil War era example is Rear Admiral Samuel Rhoads Franklin, brother of Army General William Buel Franklin.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the illustrious naval career of another York native, Rear Admiral Richard Morgan Watt, Sr. unfolded. Born in York in 1872, Watt was the son of Andrew Watt, a native of Scotland who settled in York County, and his wife Susan A. Bahn of Columbia, PA. Andrew and his brother Richard formed Watt & Brother, painters and decorators of churches and homes as well as retailers of wall paper, paints and varnishes.
Even though the Watt & Brother establishment flourished for many years, Andrew’s son, Richard Morgan Watt, went in a different direction. He reportedly won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, through a competitive examination when barely 15, graduating fourth in his class four years later. He then went on to two years of post-graduate study in naval architecture at the University of Glasgow, Scotland before serving at ship building facilities at Norfolk; Philadelphia; Brooklyn; Washington, DC; and Quincy, MA.
Richard M. Watt, Sr. figured in several world-wide news stories during his naval career. As a young officer, he was a member of the 1911 board that examined the wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana harbor to determine the cause of the disastrous explosion that had helped trigger the Spanish-American War in 1898.
A few years later, Watt was called the “star witness” in a July 1915 New York Times article about a suit the White Star Line had brought to limit liability in the sinking of the Titanic. The article reports Watt’s testimony against the steamship company: “The witness said that if the Titanic had had a water tight deck extending to the top of her bulkheads, she would be afloat today. Longitudinal bulkheads, he said, would have increased her buoyancy. The owners of the Titanic, he said, were at fault because they did not give the constructors a free hand in the installation of safety devices.”
Watt went on to supervise construction of many naval battleships. An unidentified newspaper article about his 1936 retirement lists him having had a hand in the supervision of building the battleships Indiana, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont; cruisers New York, Brooklyn, Columbia, Minneapolis, and Des Moines; and submarines Octopus, Viper, Cuttlefish, and Tarantula. He died in 1938 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The legacy doesn’t end there. Richard Morgan Watt, Sr. was married to Bessie M. Davis of York. Their son, Richard Morgan Watt, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1901. After attending schools near his father’s posts in Washington, DC and Norfolk, he followed the path to the Annapolis, reportedly graduating first in his class in 1920. After doing post-graduate work at MIT, he too served the Navy in ship building design and construction. He was stationed on the aircraft carrier Lexington, based at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. Luckily for the Lexington crew, the ship was at sea during the attack.
According to a short typed biography at the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives, Richard M. Watt, Jr., who also attained the rank of Rear Admiral, was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1943 for his work on the Navy’s destroyer escort program.
Not to be outdone, a third family member of York painter and decorator Andrew Watt achieved Rear Admiral status. According to a May 1951 Gazette & Daily article, local Kiwanis club members George Hay Kain, Sr. and William H. Kain, had their nephew and cousin, Rear Admiral Richard Morgan Watt, Jr., speak to the club. Rear Admiral Andrew G. Shepard also attended the Kiwanis meeting to hear his cousin Richard speak. Shepard was son of Jessie Elisabeth Watt and George H. Shepard and grandson of Andrew.
York County may be landlocked, but it has sent certainly many of its young to sea to serve with honor and distinction.