A 1945 Interview with Barry Keys

I’m Herb Chandler with The San Francisco Globe. I am interviewing Barry Keys, the detective that broke the sensational Mare Island sabotage case you may have read about in our paper.

HC: Mr. Keys, can I call you Barry?

BK: Most people call me Keys, Herb.

HC: Okay, Keys it is. Are you a native of San Francisco?

BK: No, Herb, I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I like to think of San Francisco as my hometown. 

HC: I think what my readers want to know is why were you assigned the Mare Island case?

BK: When I was with the FBI, I had a case that brought me to Mare Island. That case introduced me to many of the naval officers and men there. I was assigned to this last case because of my knowledge of the shipyard. All I can really say about it now is that many people on the base and in the FBI helped to bring that case to a successful end. A very good man gave his life in that case.

HC: Wow, you mean he was killed on the shipyard?

BK: Yes, Herb. He was all America stands for. A very brave, gallant man, the very best of men.

HC: I am very sorry to hear about that. Can you tell me anymore about how it happened?

BK: All I can say, Herb, is that he was ambushed by one of the gang we were investigating. As I said when you wanted me for this interview, you have to ask the FBI for any details on their cases.

HC: Okay, I understand that, Keys. Let’s try a different tack. How did you get started in your line of work?

BK: I joined the Baltimore police force when I got out of the Army. A couple of years later the FBI was recruiting and I spent twenty years in their service.

 HC: What made you decide to open your own detective agency?

BK: Actually I would have to say my wife, Mary, made the decision for me. She didn’t like the uncertainty of knowing when or if I was going to come home after work.

HC: Do you mean because the work was dangerous?

BK: Yes, the work could be dangerous, particularly when our manpower was low and I had to work alone. The end for Mary was when I got shot and was taken to the hospital with no identification as a John Doe. No one was able to find me for days and Mary was sick with worry.

HC: I can see she would be upset. What does she think of your detective agency?

BK: Mary is my partner in the agency and keeps the office running while I’m out burning shoe leather. 

HC: So how is that different from your FBI work?

BK: The biggest difference is that she and I can pick the jobs and the hours.

HC: How does a detective agency work? I mean why would a person go to you instead of the police?

BK: Good question, Herb. Sometimes people don’t want the police involved for various reasons. We render many services that the police don’t handle. We had an embezzlement case where the owner of the business had investors that he didn’t want worried over the security of their money. There are other cases like runaway children, or missing persons that the police don’t have the manpower for. Some of those types of cases take us to other states or countries where the local police don’t have jurisdiction.

We also have courier services for valuables, and are at times asked to escort VIP’s from the airport or docks to hotels or embassies.

HC: Sounds like you must be busy. Where is your agency located?

BK: We’re on the corner of Bush and Mason, just below Nob Hill.

HC: Can you tell me the most unusual thing that happened to you on the job?

BK: Well, let me see. A plane ride in a dual cockpit P51, or waking up on a steel table in a veterinarian’s clinic with a hole in my leg from a gun shot.

HC: Why, pray tell, a veterinarian’s clinic?

BK: I was on an undercover job and my partner thought going to a hospital would have spoiled our cover.

HC: Can you tell me about any current or pending cases you’re investigating?

BK: I don’t know where this case may lead, but I’ve been contacted about investigating American corporations that have done business with the Nazis during the war. This one could turn out to be the most interesting case yet. 

HC: Thank you, Mr. Keys. I must say your job does seem quite dangerous to me. This new case sounds very ominous; I hope this one will be less risky for you. Perhaps you can tell our readers about when you finish it.

BK: Thanks, Herb. As I said, Mary won’t put me in a dangerous case, so I’m looking forward a more interesting case with less risk. I’ll let you know about it when we wrap it up.


Power and Glory

A poster in my office of a Miller front drive race car is the inspiration for this blog. In my first novel I tried to convey my passion for the early American craftsmanship of racing cars. The very early cars were huge, somewhat crude, oil-slinging beasts. In the 1920’s Harry Arminius Miller arrived to raise the level of craftsmanship to an altogether new dimension.

Born in Wisconsin in 1875, Harry left school as a teenager to seek out the mechanical things that thrilled him. In 1894 Miller moved to San Francisco to work in a bicycle shop. In 1905 Harry found employment in Pasadena in what would become his lifelong passion, the automobile. Having an inventive mind for things mechanical, he built his own car at home. Through the years, Harry’s quest for invention would change racing cars and engines forever.

Working in a shed behind his house, Harry designed and built a new type of spark plug for which he received his first patent. His first big success was a racing carburetor for which he received another patent. The popularity of the carburetor allowed Harry to move into a large shop on Los Angeles St. in Los Angeles, CA.

Miller’s shop became the West Coast Mecca for auto racers. In the new shop, outfitted with machine tools that could turn out innovative products, Harry’s fertile mind soon burst forth with new ideas. He experimented with new metal alloys: first making aluminum pistons, then connecting rods of a new steel alloy. He soon branched out from carburetors to build complete racing engines, then to complete racing cars.

Business continued to boom, requiring Miller to move to yet a larger shop on Long Beach Avenue. He bought a house in town and a ranch in the hills where he and his wife Edna could get away from the business bustle. He had a small animal zoo there and would, on occasion, have racers and his employees over for a lavish weekend. Griffith Borgeson in his masterful book, Miller, describes Harry as a kindly man and a wonderful boss.

His engines and cars were built with a jewel-like quality that I admire and find most impressive. The rough castings were hand finished and mirror smooth; steel and aluminum were finely machined, then hand filed to perfection. Harry demanded that his men would spend long hours detailing every inch of each engine and each car. 6000 man-hours went into completing each car, much of that time spent filing and polishing. Every part, no matter how small—a gear lever, a throttle pedal, a simple mounting bracket—all were finished with the same exquisite craftsmanship.

Harry continued to invent, and reinvent, many mechanical designs. He improved transmissions, front drive systems, supercharging, steering gear, and produced innovations in aircraft engines that we take for granted today. All of his creations were executed with the same level of beautiful finish. His cars dominated many Indianapolis 500’s; the engines he pioneered won Indy into the late 1970’s. Miller cars and engines are highly revered today. Many cars are carefully restored and running in special vintage races worldwide.

The Indianapolis museum and the Smithsonian museum both have excellent examples of Miller front drive masterpieces on exhibit. I wrote two novels portraying the front drive cars as the wonderful machines they were. I enjoyed researching Miller, greatly aided by Griffith Borgeson’s two excellent books. So here’s to Harry Miller, the man that raised the bar on automotive and race car perfection. If you’d like more information or would like to see more of Harry’s work, Google Harry A. Miller.          



Random Thoughts….

Building 45, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, fenced off after the Napa Earthquake

Mare Island is a special place for me. Just a few miles away, it evokes in me WWII stories of brave men and women fighting for our country. I based two of my novels around the shipyard using the Navy base as the backdrop. Before the yard was abandoned by the Navy in 1996, it had a very rich history.

Commissioned in 1854, Mare Island was the first US Navy shipyard on the West Coast. Commander Farragut, the man that made the famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” took the first command of the island. The yard would grow slowly as the Navy gained strength. The recurring theme for the yard during its 142 years would be times of dire spending cuts to times of rapid growth as the yard responded to threats of war.

Responding to the Navy’s need to build and repair ships during war times is something the men and women always did with exceptional dedication. During WWI the yard built a destroyer, the USS Ward, in 17 1/2 days. This would be the same USS Ward that fired the first shot at Pearl Harbor to sink a Japanese submarine. WWII in my eyes became Mare Island’s finest hour. The 5000-acre yard swelled to over 45,000 employees that worked 24 hours seven days a week in three 8 hour shifts.

Even as they repaired hundreds of battle damaged warships of every type, they managed to pump out hundreds of brand new warships. There was a constant stream of ships that came in for overhauls and new types of equipment. Rush orders for improved types of radar, sonar, better armor, better and bigger guns were installed on ships and boats. Before the war, installations of these types of materials would take months or years.

Mare’s dedicated workers did the jobs in weeks, one crew taking over from the other, constantly in motion, getting the ships out, back to the war’s front line.

These men and women also dedicated their earnings to the war effort by buying war bonds. The dollars they contributed paid for all 17 submarines the shipyard built during the war. That came to almost 76 million dollars. Mare Island built 5 out of the 7 top scoring submarines of the war.

The yard is closed now, a ghost of what it once was. Buildings dating from the 1850’s stand empty in the morning mist that swirls up from the Mare Island Strait. It is today open for visitors: a museum on Railroad Avenue is an excellent start to learn more about the famous yard. A trail on the south end of the island offers plenty of interesting places to see, plus if you climb the gentle hill you will be presented with a panoramic view of the Carquinez Strait, San Pablo Bay, Richmond, and the skyline of San Francisco.

For those of you wanting more, an outstanding book that documents the first one hundred years, A Long Line of Ships by Arnold Lott, is a goldmine of information.

Walking along the waterfront you can still feel the vibrancy of the time when workers rushed about their jobs. Welding sparks flew; mountains of supplies were loaded, giant cranes scurried back and forth on train rails. Ships were stacked three and four abreast and everyone was eager to get back in the fight to save our democracy. Yes, a special place indeed from a time when Axis powers wanted to destroy America’s every ideal. A time our ancestors pulled together to end the villainy.