Thursday, November 21, 2013

Captain William De Valin and the Party of the Year, 1925

In October 1925, the commanding officer of the Norfolk Navy Yard decided to have a Halloween party at the officers' club. He invited all of the region's senior Naval and Marine officers to attend and told them it was going to be a costume party. To make the party truly a party, he needed alcohol. Being that this was the era of Prohibition, legally obtaining such beverages was hard to do.

Fortunately for party goers, one officer in Hampton Roads oversaw the largest supply of legal alcohol in the area, Captain William De Valin, commanding officer of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. The Volstead Act, the Federal law that officially made the transportation, production, and possession of alcohol a crime, provided for two exceptions: religious use (i.e. wine for Holy Communion) and medicinal purposes. Although the American Medical Association denounced the use of alcohol as a valid treatment option, the medical community had long used whiskey and other hard liquors as antiseptics and analgesics. During Prohibition, patients seeking hard liquor for such purposes had to get a special prescription. Much of Dr. De Valin's supply came from seized contraband found on Navy ships that had attempted to bootleg whiskey and champagne into NOB Norfolk from the West Indies. Once the trial of the accused bootleggers was over, Naval authorities often transferred the booze over to the Hospital.

Since this was a costume party, the commanding officer of the Navy Yard's Marines, Colonel Henry Davis, came dressed as Sunbonnet Sue, a popular quilting pattern and children's book character. De Valin came dressed as a Scottish bagpiper and, more importantly, brought with him several pints of whiskey and champagne.

All of the guests partook of the liquor and, by all accounts, the party was a huge success. After a few drinks, Davis and De Valin entertained the guests with their best rendition of Scottish highland dances. One person, however, thought De Valin was having too much fun. Commander Robert Heiner, De Valin's executive officer, believed his boss to be out of control. After the party was over, he filed charges against De Valin.
One of the costumes depicted Sunbonnet
Sue, a popular children's book and quilting

Heiner accused De Valin not only of being drunk, but of using the Hospital's supply of liquor improperly and groping women at the party. He also charged that De Valin was so drunk that he attempted to put pajamas on a horse. When the accusation reached the desk of Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur, this former chief justice of the California Supreme Court was not pleased. While denying that he was on a crusade to completely rid the Navy of all liquor, Wilbur nonetheless was not happy with constant reports of bootlegging and misuse of liquor by the Navy's Medical Corps. He personally ordered an investigation into the party and De Valin's actions. Enough evidence was discovered and the Secretary ordered a formal court-martial for May 1926.

Ironically, though it was well-known that every officer at the party drank, none of them were charged with violating the Volstead Act. Indeed, the Navy only accused De Valin of misuse of the Hospital liquor supply and actions unbecoming an officer. The charge of dressing up the horse was never brought up (De Valin later claimed to a newspaper reporter, however, that he was simply fixing the bandages on the horse's legs).

The trial brought up all the embarrassing events of that fateful night: the booze, the wild costumes, the dancing, and the alleged groping. Heiner testified that this party was not the first time his commanding officer raided the Hospital's liquor cabinet. He claimed that De Valin would also take some during hunting trips in the Virginia countryside. Colonel Davis and Commander Charles Blakely, commanding officer of the battleship USS Texas (BB-35), came to De Valin's defense. They both claimed that De Valin was not drunk and, while he danced with several women, he never touched them improperly. Of course, upon cross examination, Commander Blakely did admit that he personally advised De Valin that his actions were questionable and that he should leave the party.

The panel cleared De Valin of the more serious charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, but it did find him guilty of misusing the Hospital's liquor supply. For that, the court punished him by demoting him down several ranks on the promotion list. Sensing also that Heiner and De Valin had serious personal issues with each other, Wilbur transferred De Valin to the Naval hospital in Philadelphia.

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