Californians and the Military
Frank Roger Seaver
A Hero's Life
By Colonel Norman S. Marshall
California Center for Military History

Frank Roger Seaver is remembered today as a great philanthropist and captain of industry. He was a generous contributor of a self-made fortune to Pomona and Pepperdine colleges. He also played a significant role in the development of the California Naval Militia.

Seaver spent his early years in Claremont, California among orange trees, walnut trees and other fruit groves planted by his father who was a grower and founder of the First National Bank of Pomona.

He graduated from high school in 1901 where he had served as Captain of the Cadets and then went on to Pomona College where he became active in college debating and forensics and manager of the football team. He became student body president and during his junior year organized the students to lay out, grade, prepare and plant the athletic field.

While in college he joined the National Guard and was called up with other state units for a month of police duty during the San Francisco earthquake.
Graduating in 1905, he spent a year reading law and passed the bar examination in 1906 and then, although an admitted lawyer, he took a year's post-graduate study at Harvard Law School.

He returned to Los Angeles, practiced shortly as an associate of George Sanders and then opened his own office where he was later joined by his brother, Bryan. They were partners for nine years until Seaver was called into the military service.

Los Angeles was a booming community and Seaver, a young bachelor, enjoyed his freedom residing at the University Club and was active in local theatrical productions becoming president of the Amateur Players Club.

His practice flourished and he made a run at political office being an elected a Freeholder of Los Angeles County (predecessor to a County Supervisor) and materially helped in drafting and pushing through to acceptance the County's first organic document of incorporation, its charter, in 1912. It remains substantially unchanged today. Years later Seaver said, "That was in 1912. We sat down and drafted the County Charter of Los Angeles County, which was submitted to the voters and adopted. I guess it was a pretty good charter too, even though it wasn't one-tenth as thick as the city charter. Anyway, it's still in use and has been amended very little. In 1958 the County Board of Supervisors set up a Citizens Charter Study Committee to consider the possible need for revisions in that 1912 charter of ours. They put me on the committee. We met every week for about eight months, and we finally decided not to change it. Decided we couldn't do much better. As a matter of fact, I understand that old charter of ours has been used some as a model around the country."

While with a client, Seaver saw a beautiful young girl who he was tempted to introduce himself to but refrained until a few weeks later he attended a rehearsal of the Amateur Players Club for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. He saw her again as the vocal coach.

At Seaver's urging, a good friend, Allen Archer, knowing Miss Blanche Ebert was a piano teacher enrolled as her student for several weeks until Archer felt comfortable in arranging a proper introduction to Frank.

Bachelor Seaver then took things in hand himself and married her on September 16, 1916 at her home church in Chicago. Blanche Seaver gave up her professionally promising musical career and became a full time wife, hostess and first lady to her husband's enterprises. They remained childless.

In 1913 he joined the Naval Militia as a Seaman Second Class and was soon promoted to Ensign. When war erupted in Europe in August 1914, he was a lieutenant senior grade commanding the newly formed Ninth Division which he helped to organize.

Membership in the Naval Militia involved three-week cruises each summer on naval ships: the cruiser MARBLEHEAD, the torpedo boat FARRAGUT, the destroyers HOPKINS and HULL were so used. There were also frequent weekend cruises for drilling the gun crews, practicing navigation and standing watch. This experience, followed by wartime duty on the cruiser PUEBLO, developed in young Seaver an abiding love of the sea and seamanship.

With his drive for mastery of anything he undertook, it is not surprising that he studied intensively by himself until he could pass the qualifying examinations for the rank of Master Mariner in the merchant marine, eligible to command ocean-going vessels of all tonnages on any of the world's seas. Though he has never put it to use Seaver was very proud of the certificate of this highest rank.

By 1915, during World War I, pilots were turning the skies over Europe into battlefields. The United States Army had bought a few planes, and young Lieutenant Seaver, listening to aviation talk and reading about the new developments, saw in the airplane the shape of the future.

Putting his legal training and organizational experience to work, he got a permit in 1915 to set up the Aviation Section of the California Naval Militia - the second of such organizations in the country.

Two airplanes were supplied to the new unit by Glenn Martin, an early builder and competitor of both the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. The men met for instruction at the State Armory in Los Angeles' Exposition Park, and flew at Gardena Aviation Field. Flying instruction was provided by Glenn Martin and members of his school and airplane factory staff. Oilman Edward L. Doheny rendered some help to the group and it was in this connection that Frank first met Mr. Doheny and his son Ned, who joined the Naval Reserves with Frank. This was the beginning of a close acquaintance with the Doheny family.

As founder of this group, young Lieutenant Seaver was kept busy checking out applicants for pilots' licenses. "I never learned to fly," he explains, "but all you had to be able to do to check men out for licenses in those days was to stand on the ground and watch them make two figure 8's and a couple of other figures in the air, and then see to it that they could bring the machine down within fifty feet of a marker on the ground."

The arduous part of the licensing procedure, it seems, was getting out to the flying field by five in the morning so that the young aviators could get their test flights in before seven.

After that hour, air pockets were thought to make flying dangerous for the wood and fabric biplanes of those days.

Active Duty

The memories of Americans were filled with two great sea battles that occurred shortly before our entry into the World War.

The Kaiser had recalled his China Squadron from Tsingtao; it was composed of Greisenau and Scharnhorst (armoured cruisers) and two light cruisers, Emden and Nurnberg.

The Emden was detached as a commerce raider, sinking seventy British, French, Russian and Japanese ships in three months throughout the Indian Ocean before her destruction in a battle off the Cocos Islands. The remaining three ships were sent home across the Pacific.

Admiral Graf Maximillian von Spee did not confine his homeward journey to passive sailing. He stopped at Christmas Island and the Marquesas, severed English transoceanic cables at Fanning Island, and shelled Tahiti. But he was unable to drop anchor at German Samoa, for it was held by New Zealand troops. The Squadron reached Easter Island on October 1 to rendezvous with the cruisers Dresden and Leipzig. Within a week the warships met colliers at the Juan Fernandez Islands, about 500 miles west of Chile, then set course for the South Atlantic.

During October 1914 it became evident that a major part of this squadron was heading for South America, where Germany had powerful interests. To the Germans, this course seemed prudent in view of the Japanese declaration of war against Germany. Such action brought two further advantages: it was thought unlikely that the Japanese would pursue the Germans so far afield, in view of possible complications with the United States, and the journey could be accomplished in relative ease and secrecy by journeying via the myriad islands en route.

The British were anxious lest subsequently the German fleet might round Cape Horn and cause havoc to the vital South American-European trade in meat and maize. The Admiralty resolved that this danger must be averted at all costs, for if her foreign trade and food imports were seriously disrupted, Great Britain would be brought to her knees in a matter of weeks. Thus the German vessels must be found and destroyed.

Coronel, to the south of Santiago, Chile, was the scene of the first round in a double clash of navies. On 31 October the British light cruiser Glasgow anchored in Coronel Bay. She had taken a battering in tremendous gales during her journey from the Falkland Islands, and was now in need of a brief respite in port for repairs. Next day, however, the Glasgow sailed away, aware from telegraphic signals that a German ship was nearby. Soon she joined the rest of the British fleet some forty miles west of Coronel.

As it happened, Spee had moved south to forestall the Glasgow at the same time that the British commander Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, had voyaged forth to fight what he supposed to be the isolated German light cruiser Leipzig. Although both navies sought the encounter, the actual battle was full of mutual surprises.

The British ships, Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto spread out in linear formation. On the afternoon of 1 November, the German armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau approached on the horizon; the Leipzig was not, after all, along. To this German concentration was added the Dresden. The British were at a heavy disadvantage: against two elderly armored cruisers, an armed merchant ship, and a light cruiser, the Germans pitted two modern armored cruisers and two light cruisers, with the danger of a third, the Nurnberg, in the background. Moreover, the German ships were manned by expert professional sailors, whereas the British seamen were mostly recent recruits. Cradock could have avoided action by retiring southwards; Cruttwell guesses that his motive for not doing so was his hope that before his inevitable destruction he night damage the German fleet sufficiently to enable the British ship Canopus, 300 miles to the south, to finish the job.

Cradock was a true son of Nelson. Fearlessly he prepared for battle against overwhelming odds. As evening fell, the German guns blazed fire, and thunderously the British boomed their reply. Yet, outlined in the sunset, the British ships were doomed. In under an hour the Good Hope found a watery grave. Torn by an explosion, her hulk blazing like a charnel house, the British flagship disappeared from sight. Lumbering on into the darkness, the burning Monmouth was annihilated by the Nurnberg. Both British ships went down in grim defiance, with the loss of every single man aboard, 1440 in all. Somehow the Glasgow contrived to escape, while the Otranto had only played a minor role. The German ships were barely scratched, and their only casualties were two wounded. Here was a German victory at the very moment when Allied morale needed a fillip to counter Turkish entry into the war.

Britain did not sit down under the humiliation. Admiral Lord Fisher, newly reappointed as First Sea Lord, was fiercely determined to hunt down Spee wherever he went. Yet Spee had tasted victory and liked its flavor. As the French say, "appetit vient en mangeant". After much delay, Spee decided to pull off another coup by attacking the Falkland Islands, a position of tremendous strategic importance due to its use as a coaling station and radio communications center. He was partially encouraged by several reports that the islands now lay undefended.

Meanwhile, on 7 December, Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, Commander in Chief of British naval forces in the Pacific and South Atlantic, had arrived with his squadron for coaling in the Falklands. Next day the Gneisenau and Nurnberg were sighted. The Germans had seen a tremendous pall of smoke rising from the harbor, but thinking that the stocks of coal were being destroyed on their approach, they proceeded. Too late, the German vessels spotted the British battle cruisers lying at anchor in Port Stanley. Swiftly they and the rest of the German fleet sped southeast. Ironically, several of the British ships were still coaling, and had Spee boldly attacked, he might have done considerable damage.

Sturdee, calm and unhurried in the best tradition of Drake, but nonetheless relentless, followed in pursuit. Caution lest his ships be damaged seriously led Sturdee to fight at long range, and this considerably lengthened the duration of the battle. Nevertheless, he had it mostly his own way. In the afternoon, the Scharnhorst, already burning uncontrollably, was pulverized by the Inflexible and the Invincible. Rolling on her side, the Scharnhorst sank. Firing haphazardly to the end, the Gneisenau went down with flags flying and sailors cheering the Kaiser. The Germans had proved themselves as brave in defeat as they were haughty in victory. Then the Nurnberg fell victim to the KENT, and the Leipzig similarly to the CORNWALL and the GLASGOW. Only the Dresden escaped, to lead a charmed life as the last German cruiser at sea, until she too was cornered the following March.

Some two hundred German sailors survived the rout, but eighteen hundred died, including Spee and his two sons. British casualties were only thirty. The Falklands was Coronel in reverse, but now the threat from German surface raiders was over. Britannia once more ruled the waves.

Just before the United States joined the war in April 1917, many of America's older ships were placed in full commission and crewed by the naval militia. Among these was the USS PUEBLO (CA 7) upon which Seaver served as a deck officer between April 1917 and December 1, 1918.

The PUEBLO was originally named the USS COLORADO and was a heavy cruiser displacing 13,780 tons carrying four 8 inch guns and fourteen 6 inch guns. She was a coal burner commissioned on 19 January 1905. She served in the Far Eastern Station, and supported expeditionary forces in Nicaragua in 1913. While in overhaul she was renamed PUEBLO, after the Colorado town. That was a practice often followed as the new oil burning battleships were completed and named after the several states. Similarly other San Francisco home ported cruisers were renamed (HUNTINGTON nee West Virginia, SAN DIEGO nee California). She then served in the Mexican waters briefly blockading interned German ships.

With the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands in mind, upon outbreak of the war, the Navy Department caused the PUEBLO to become the flagship of the Cruiser Scouting Force patrolling the South Atlantic, protecting shipping against commerce raiders, paying diplomatic calls to South American ports and preventing the sailing of German and Austrian ships interned in Bahia, Brazil. Between 5 February and 16 October 1918, PUEBLO made several voyages across the Atlantic escorting ships carrying men and supplies to England.

The duty, though mundane, was vital and U-boats posed a constant and real threat. A sister ship, the SAN DIEGO (CA-6), was sunk by such a U-boat, U-156, southeast of Fire Island, New York on 19 July 1918 with the loss of six lives. It was the only warship lost by the United States in the war.

During these many months Seaver sailed 80,000 miles aboard the Pueblo and was later transferred to New York in the Transportation Service. In December 1918 he was charged with liquidating, leasing, demobilizing, selling or otherwise disposing of 300 transports which had been appropriated by the Navy after the commencement of hostilities.

In New York, Seaver had his wife rejoin him. He had been called to active duty only six months after marrying Blanche. During his duty at sea, Blanche had lived first with her husband's family in Pomona, California and later with her own family in Chicago.

The Doheny Connection

Edward L. Doheney, the oil magnate and industrialist, whose son is the subject of another article of this series, owned an ocean going yacht, the Casiana, which had been sent to New York from the west coast. Mrs. Doheney, upon meeting Blanche Seaver, invited the couple to spend a weekend on the yacht.

One invitation led to another. Doheney was impressed with the young man's abilities and drive and asked him when he could get out of the Navy.

"Any time," said Seaver. "I am in charge of processing release papers. I could put my own release through tomorrow."

"Why not do it", said Doheny "and come to work for me?"

The next day, October 14, 1919, was Lieutenant Commander Seaver's last day in the Navy.

Then he began a life-long career in industry and philanthropy for which he is remembered.

Why did he do it? Why enter business and give up a law practice? Certainly Doheny was a captain of American Industry and the pay was attractive. Although Seaver practiced law for nine years before the war, it would take a long while to rebuild that practice and there was the promise of adventure befitting his energy and drive.

The Doheny oil enterprise was immense. His Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, as the parent of many subsidiaries, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Seaver's first job was to go to Louisiana to confirm titles on oil properties then in December 1919, he returned to the corporate offices in Los Angeles. In 1920, Seaver spent several months in New York and Washington negotiating the return of Doheny ships from Norway.

He performed so well that Doheny made him General Counsel and Managing General Agent for Doheny's vast Mexican operations between 1921 and 1927 and it was there that he began to distinguish himself as a businessman of Huasteca Petroleum Company.

Seaver's position in Mexico was of very considerable importance, for the Doheny company was the largest single taxpayer to the Mexican federal government. Since the government was in those days (1921) in rather shaky condition, financially as well as politically, those taxes were of the greatest importance. Frank Seaver recalled personally delivering advance taxes in the form of gold on at least one occasion to make it possible for the government to meet the army payroll. His wife, Blanche, kept a photostat of a Huasteca Petroleum Company check, dated October 8, 1922, and made out to the "Tesorero General de la Nacion" in the amount of $3,059,614.52! It was signed by Frank R. Seaver and represented a year's royalty on oil at one dollar a barrel.

The vast potential of Mexico challenged Mr. Seaver's organizing and developmental abilities. He asked the home office for permission to develop local markets for their petroleum products-an innovation at that time.

Receiving the permission, he proceeded on a grand scale. Fuel oil sales in those days far outstripped other petroleum uses; Seaver soon had contracts to supply all the fuel oil used by the Mexican National Railways.

Gasoline sales were hard to promote because of the scarcity of paved roads on which to drive. (Today's short drive to Cuernavaca then took three and a half to four long, jouncing hours over cobblestones.) So Frank Seaver talked the Mexican Government into a road paving program, starting with Mexico City and fanning out over the countryside.

This paving enterprise also provided an outlet for the company's asphalt production. But primarily Seaver was always concerned with doing the job right. When the city of Toluca wanted a half-mile of street paved for a fiesta, during the
rainy season when asphalt would not dry properly, Seaver took on the job, but paved it with concrete. And he prudently demanded payment in gold-and in advance.

Gasoline for cars was sold in five-gallon cans. To use the gasoline you simply spiked two holes through the top of the can and poured the gas into your car's tank. Did you throw away the can? By no means! You returned the can to your supplier to be refilled and soldered shut again.

This seemed a primitive way of carrying on a modern business, so Frank Seaver brought up-to-date service stations into being south of the border for the first time. His masterpiece, he recalls, was located in a glorietta, one of the circles spotted along the Paseo de la Reforma, just beyond Chapultepec Castle. Here he built a massive structure with four-directional entrances and a carved-stone gate resembling a famous old Mexican landmark.

As the system of paved roads expanded, Seaver visited other towns along the highways; he selected sites, secured the property rights and built more service stations.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Seaver and he were establishing themselves in the life of the colorful capital. Their home, a large and handsome dwelling in the Mexican style, built of stone and graced by lovely stairways and gardens, faced a lot owned by Mr. Doheny. At Frank Seaver's suggestion, Mr. Doheny turned the lot over to the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Embassy was soon built on it.

During the early years of the Seavers' stay in Mexico (1921-1927) there was no stable Mexican government which was recognized by the United States. Thus at times the Embassy staff had no ambassador at its head. Many contacts were carried on informally through Frank Seaver's office. But, though international relations might be informal, social relations were formal indeed. Mexico City might be cut off from the outside world - as it was twice during these years - but the international set still dined in white-tie elegance.

The formal social life of the Mexican capital's diplomatic circle kept the Seavers happily occupied a good deal of the time. But feeling that as Americans abroad it was their duty as well as their pleasure to enter into the life of the community, they saw to it that a majority of their friends were Mexicans. To learn the language, they engaged a teacher and Mr. Seaver took his daily Spanish lesson before breakfast. Mrs. Seaver took her lesson following breakfast. They also read aloud from a Mexico City newspaper and listened to recordings. Soon both were on easy conversational terms with their new Spanish-speaking friends, with a number of whom they maintained warm relations down through the years.

Foreseeing Mexican government expropriation and continuing hostility against foreign investment, Seaver succeeding in selling off Doheny's Huasteca Petroleum Company to Standard Oil of Indiana (Sinclair's organization). [Sinclair was a co-conspirator with Doheny in the Teapot Dome/Elk Hills scandal involving Interior Secretary Fall.]

Although Seaver had been advanced to Vice Presidency of Huasteca organization, he felt an urge to strike out and go into business for himself.

A summary of the effectiveness of his years of work in Mexico is clearly set forth in his farewell message, as printed in "Bonita Huasteca" September, 1927:

"Having had the fortune to be chosen to take charge of the organization of a new petroleum enterprise in the United States, l am ceasing my active part in the management of the Huasteca Petroleum Company, and I shall not return to Mexico for the present. I hope, however, to continue my personal interest in the progress and activities of the company, ready at any time to give my help and advice to it, if it is thought necessary. I also hope to visit Mexico several times in the future. The organization which I had the pleasure to build, and of which I formed a part, will continue working as it has up to now; I am confident that the useful and cordial relations which exist both within and outside the company will continue unchanged, and that "La Huasteca", which has become a familiar name and a rel national institution, will continue to give greater and better service to the Republic, to the satisfaction of its inhabitants. I wish to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation and thanks to all those who in any way have helped me in the success of the organization which I am now leaving; as well as the Mexican people in general, for the generous and hospitable treatment of which I was the object during my six years of residence in their country. To all those with whom I had the pleasure to come in contact, whether in business or in social life, as well as in the government of Mexico, I am happy to send my best wishes and cordial greetings.


He accepted Mr. Doheny's invitation to come up to Los Angeles and help organize a new company, the Pacific Petroleum Products Company, through which he helped to market some 20,000,000 gallons of gasoline, building tanks and service stations in the San Francisco area.

He helped Mr. Doheny organize the Pan-Pacific Petroleum Products Company, but they soon sold out again. The idea of going on his own was ripening in his mind. And as he pondered, the matter of the Doheny Stone Drill Company came to his attention.

The Doheny Stone Drill Company was controlled by Doheny's Petroleum Securities Company. It had land, buildings and equipment, mostly in Torrance, and it sporadically employed some 50-75 employees, but had no steady basis of operation.

Frank Seaver offered to take over some of the buildings and equipment of the Stone Drill Company on a ten-year lease. In the depths of the great depression, he organized the Hydril Company, which today is the center of a firmly knit web of factories, products and subsidiary companies.

Those first years of industrial operation demanded perseverance and determination; they ate into the capital laid by as the result of so much hard work and frugality. After two years, however, the business was in the black. And by 1938, Hydril was firmly enough established to permit Frank Seaver to purchase the property and start a still-continuing program of expansion in world wide markets.

The basis of the line today is oil-field equipment, including some 17,000 different parts. About 85% of the total business is covered by company patents. The first salesman was sent to the Texas oil fields in 1933, and to the Middle East in 1938.

Today, it remains a giant in its field as a primary producer of oil field drilling equipment and explosive arresters.



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Updated 8 February 2016