Ray Millholland – Engineer, Sailor, Author

Ray Millholland is pretty unknown today. Back in the day, he was famous for a series of stories in the Saturday Evening Post about a master machinist named Blue Chip Haggerty. Blue Chip is a master machinist who gets into a jam, and then out again while trying to meet the rigid specifications of the Army and Navy. These stories were later collected in a book. He’s also famous for his book on the splinter fleet of submarine chasers in World War 1, The Splinter Fleet of the Otranto Barrage, which was later made into a movie. I’m writing this article as part of a series about the authors in an issue of Short Stories that I’ll get around to reviewing soon.

Ray Milholland - Author (1894-1956) - Image courtesy Library of Congress
Ray Milholland – Author (1894-1956) – Image courtesy Library of Congress

Raymond Albert Millholland was born on April 1, 1894, in Austin, Illinois to William Knotts and Anna D. Marshall Millholland. By 1900 his family had moved to Chicago, and in 1909 to Indianpolis. His dad had a small machine shop there and built anything inventors would pay him to make, including airplane and racing car engines. He grew up in a large family, six brothers and two aunts staying together. He was an outdoorsman from an early age.
When I was six years old, they had to chase out on the prairies, take an old Civil War musket away from me, and drag me off to school. They went on dragging me to school for years after that, but every spare minute I could call my own, I was outdoors again with either a gun or a fishing line in my pistol pocket.

From the age of six on, I was finding older boys who would take me camping with them in the woods all summer long.

School was only a part-time affair for him.
During my later school days, I took a little fling one summer as a logger, helping the camp cook and riding the tail end of a six-foot felling saw.

I can still hear the whisper of the cross-cut saws felling the Michigan pine and the call of the woods boss: Stand clear! She’s going!’ At fourteen I tailed an end of a cross-cut in one of those camps and pulled down my twenty dollars a month and board.

I got my own of a high-school education by going to school until one-thirty and then working as a cub machinist until nine at night. My father had a small machine shop. We built airplane engines, racing cars and anything inventors would pay us to make. Two winners of the 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis carried our work across the line. Then I went on to learn the machinist trade as a preparation for the family plans to make a mechanical engineer out of me.

Following high school, he attended Purdue University for a year.
I managed to spend a year at engineering school and studied just one subject, to the horror of my professors— the then-mysterious art of analysis and heat treatment of steel. A Diesel-engine manufacturer for whom I worked the following summer turned over a chemical laboratory to me for experimentation with new steels. That was the end of my formal education.

It was about that time that I started writing—articles based on my research work.

On Oct 1, 1915, he married Sarah Catherine Easely.
He joined the National Guard in 1916, planning to join up and fight against Pancho Villa. However, the National Guard unit he joined didn’t get called up, and he ended up in the Navy in World War 1.
Villa and the Mexican border were too much for me, and in 1916 I left the laboratory.
I enlisted in the National Guard as an Artificer—arms repair mechanic—and had just got my battalion sergeant-major’s stripes when the big show started for Uncle Sam in dead earnest.
Gosh, I had to be an aviator, but the Army was full of gosh-I-want-to-be-an-aviators so I wangled a transfer to the aviation section of the Navy. No dice, the Navy didn’t have any crates for me to smash up, hut the Navy did have a raft of submarine chasers and no experienced engine mechanics to run them. I got chummy with the man who sent persons to the submarine chasers and wound up as chief engineer of one. And there I stuck during the whole war, shoving at a splinter boat’s throttles from Norfolk to the Adriatic and back again.
Lots of excitement and even a bit of Italian ribbon when, with eleven other American splinter boats, we formed a suicide squad and rushed the mine fields of the Austrian naval base at Durazzo, blasting out a path for the Allied battle wagons with depth charges.

That’s the part I have always wondered about—why I kept coming back every time, when common sense ought to tell a man he should be planted for keeps. It doesn’t make sense.

After the war, back to work as an engineer.
After the war I tried designing machinery for a while. Then I took a job as works manager of a Diesel engine plant. And did I have fun for a couple of years! The president of the Diesel engine company was Clessie Cummins, as near my twin brother as two birds can possibly be. We built Diesel engines and shipped them all over the world. That wasn’t enough; we had to build lighter and more powerful Diesels than anybody else. So we started in making an oil burner that could be put into a race car. We did, and that buggy stood the world on its ear when it went whizzing through the Five-Hundred Mile Race at Indianapolis one year without a stop. The job didn’t win first place, but it opened a new era for Diesel engines with a shout.

Well, the fun wore off in a few years and I tried my hand at building and selling high production machinery for the automobile factories. And I was riding high when Black Friday of ’29 came along and left me stranded with a growing family on my hands, no job, and no nickels.

By 1930, he was the head of the family, supporting a wife, three sons, his widowed mother and a younger brother. With the Great Depression in full swing, and no job, Ray started writing again. The first short story I can find from him is in Short Stories in 1935; there must have been earlier ones in other magazines. From then on, he was on a writing career till World War 2
And here I am, after being a chemist, a doughboy, a sailor, a works manager, a vice-president of something or other, having the time of my life telling the damnedest lies about what I have seen and heard during those bumpy years stretching behind me.

Settled down now? O sure! I’ve got a job now that will take me at least fifty years to finish, providing I don’t fall off some mountain ledge hunting bighorns or drown my fool self in some ice cold trout stream. But those three boys of mine—Bob, Jim, and Mac—they keep a man dead broke buying them guns, fishing tackle and ammunition.

1936 saw the publication of his memoir detailing his experiences in World War 1 as a sailor on one of the submarine chasing fleet, The Splinter Fleet of the Otranto Barrage. It must have sold well, because Twentieth-Century Fox picked it up. William Faulkner was the screenwriter and John Ford was the director – and even though the script for Submarine Patrol (1938) didn’t have much in common with the book, it must have been satisfying to have his name on the big screen. The movie had a few funny moments.

Poster for Submarine Patrol (1938), image courtesy Wikipedia
Poster for Submarine Patrol (1938), image courtesy Wikipedia

1937 saw his first story in the Saturday Evening Post. They must have paid well, as his son later recalled in this letter to the Saturday Evening Post in 2007:

A few days ago I found myself in the erstwhile Northwestern Station in Chicago without anything to read other than the passing parade and a chunk of time on my hands before my train. I stopped at a magazine stand and was almost immediately flooded with nostalgia when I spotted a copy of the Post and with it a vivid memory that Curtis Publishing and the Post were the economic lifeblood of my family as I was growing up in Indianapolis.

My father Ray Millholland’s sale of the Blue Chip Haggerty series and other short stories and articles to the Post were the sole source of our income in those years. There were seven of us in the house at 5157 Winthrop Avenue. I know what thin soup is!
He worked for the U.S. War Production Board during World War ll, reviewing suggestions and inventions from the shop floor for feasibility and usefulness. His experiences dealing with labor during the war led him to write a non-fiction book on pay, labor and management in America in 1946. Two of his sons served in the armed forces in World War 2.
He continued writing after the war, with his last story appearing in Blue Book in November 1950. He died on May 2, 1956 of a cerebral hemorrhage in a Veteran’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
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