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banner - noaa corps reflections "knox here"

“Knox here,” is the modest greeting with which Rear Admiral Robert W. Knox, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) (Ret.) answers his phone. This greeting led to a visit and Rear Admiral Robert W. Knoxconversations with a man whose career spanned 34 years and included 22 years in the field. Upon meeting Knox, one is struck by his ramrod straight carriage and his broad shoulders. Nonagenarians aren’t supposed to look that strong. The broad shoulders helped pack gear up many a hill for Admiral Knox is one whose heart was and still is in the field. His favorite working ground was Alaska where he worked in virgin areas never before surveyed. When asked about the accomplishment of which he was most proud, he really couldn’t come up with an answer. Instead he thought awhile and stated about Alaska “I didn’t enjoy it everyday in Alaska, but I did enjoy every season.” Here is a man who made it a career not f or honors, glory, or pay, but because he truly loved the work.

To put Admiral Knox’s life and career in perspective for those of us whose career has not overlapped his ( not one active officer in NOAA Corps was in its predecessor organization prior to Admiral Knox’s retirement on July 1, 1957 ), he was born 6 years before the Wright Brothers first flight, he was a sergeant in the Regular Army during the “War to End All Wars,” and he was commissioned in the Coast and Geodetic Survey under E. Lester Jones with Lineal Number 64 on January 30, 1924. This was after spending 6 months as a deck officer on the old SURVEYOR prior to his being commissioned.

Knox continued on the SURVEYOR, then one of the most modern survey vessels in the world. The only instruments on the bridge were a whistle cord, magnetic compass, steering wheel, and spittoon. Survey methods were the same as those used by Admiral Des Barres, Captain Cook, and Charles Wilkes – sextant and leadline. He saw and worked with some of the first electronic echosounders which were introduced into the C&GS in the mid 1920's. ( Subsignal units and then Dorsey units ). During the radio acoustic ranging operations ( a rather dangerous forerunner of modern electronic navigation involving dropping TNT bombs off the stern, listening for the sound wave at shore stations, and then transmitting a radio signal to the ship ), he was the only junior officer on board whom the CO trusted to be the “dynamiter” during the regular dynamiter’s lunch and dinner breaks. He has the dubious honor of having what could be the record for being towed the longest distance in Coast and Geodetic Survey history. In 1925, he was officer-in-charge of the 60-foot- contract launch ANNE W working with the old DISCOVERER in the Aleutians. He and his crew ere towed by the DISCO to Seattle from the Aleutians in September at the close of operations. The danger of the job then was real as it is now. He broke a leg during a surf landing on the Hawaiian Island of Nihau in 1926 and spent the next 2 years recovering while on duty in the Washington, D.C. office.

From 1928 to 1941, Admiral Knox spent most of his career in the field. Six of these years were spent as Chief-of Party of a combined operations party, which spent 4 years working in the Columbia River and approaches and another 2 years in southern California. In 1939, he received his first major command, the EXPLORER, and then in 1940-1941 the old SURVEYOR. From late 1941 until 1948 he held many jobs in Washington, D.C., including Chief, Section of Field Records, Chief, Nautical Chart Branch, Assistant Chief of Division, and Chief, Aeronautical Chart Branch. It was time to pack his bag and head back to seas as commanding officer of the LESTER JONES in 1948, and he then took over as commanding officer of the PATHFINDER from late 1948 until June 1950. According to Admiral Knox, the best ship he ever sailed on was the PATHFINDER. Admiral Knox accomplished a remarkable feat of seamanship with the PATHFINDER in taking it up the uncharted Nushagak River in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska. He came up on a rising tide, anchored, and off-loaded a Shoran shore party, and then returned to Bristol Bay with nary a scratch on his keel. His boats surveyed the Nushagak that season. The worst night of his shipboard experience was his last night on the PATHFINDER when he found himself anchored on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula with a vicious tidal current and a full gale combining forces trying to push him up on the rocks. Although the anchor chain was stretched taut as a fiddle string, the anchor held and he flew off to Washington, D.C., after being relieved the next day. This was fortunate for him and the C&GS as he went on to become Rear Admiral Knox and Assistant Director the following year. ( For those concerned about promotion opportunities, Rear Admiral Knox was still a commander after 27 years of commissioned service in 1951. He went directly from Commander to Rear Admiral and never held the rank of Captain.)

For a man who earned many honors and held many titles, his home is devoid of the accoutrements of success in our society such as plaques, medals, certificates, etc. to enumerate a few of his accomplishments: (1) numerous scientific articles on diverse subjects such as sound velocity, magnetic declination, shore erosion planning, and many mapping and charting articles; (2) President, Institute of Navigation 1956-1957; (3) President of the Directing Committee, International Hydrographic Bureau 1957-1962 (i.e., the head of IHB); and (4) the recipient of an Exceptional Service Award from the Department of Commerce.

The mementos of Rear Admiral Knox’s career that he cherishes the most are those that come from the men he worked with in the field. Three items in particular speak about Knox the man: a beautiful lighthouse made from a brass shaft made by Jim Baker, an engineer who felt that Admiral Knox had helped him stay out of jail; a magnificent inscribed hand-drawn map of the Columbia River entrance showing many of its configurations as shown on previous historical charts as drawn by Kelly McBean, an artist whom Knox hired as field surveyor during the depression years; and the third item being a pair of hand-carved bookends showing two men packing gear to a difficult station.

Admiral Knox tells a tale on himself in describing these bookends which strikes to the soul of every Coast Survey and NOAA field hand there ever was. One of the packers is struggling up a sheer rock wall while the other has his pack thrown off and is obviously burned out and panting. In presenting this to Admiral Knox, Roy Syler said that the one panting and burned out was Knox and the other was Syler doing “all the work.” These gifts, given by the men who worked with him and for him, show Robert Knox to be a humane respected leader– one who was “fair to the company, far to the men.”

Given Knox’s strong “Old Survey” field orientation, one might think he would yearn for a return to the “good old days.” On the contrary, Admiral Knox states emphatically that if the Corps had not changed and diversified that it would now be a memory. Diversification, adaptability, and maintenance of professional credentials are the road to professional and organizational survival. In fact, Knox welcomes the addition of fisheries scientists, meteorologists, and other “non-traditional” groups to the Corps. He feels that the understanding of Ocean-Atmosphere interaction is one of the biggest challenges facing NOAA now and in the future. As a side note concerning professional credentials, Admiral Knox received his first unlimited tonnage Master’s License in 1924, prior to the birth of most active-duty NOAA officers. He looks forward to sitting for his thirteenth renewal ( every 5 years ) this next year.

So. Here’s to “Knox here.” May Admiral Knox and his type be here and with us always. May we be worthy to follow hin his and the other old-timers footsteps. And by the way, give him a ring while in the Washington, D.C. area. He’d be glad to share experiences with you.

Submitted by:
CDR. Skip Theberge, NOAA.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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