Hedgesville resident recalls long military career
HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. -- Washington D.C., 1957. The District was still a sleepy, southern town that had yet to see a metropolitan boom. At least that was the perspective of David Woods, then a 24-year-old ensign in the United States Navy, who took a daily bus to his post at the Pentagon where he was carefully working with classified military information.
Under Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh A. Burke, Woods produced scientific movies of research and development that featured up-and-coming naval operations.
"The new airplanes, the new submarines, the new ships, the new weapons systems, all of the brand-new stuff," Woods said. "And this was still so new it was classified."
For a period of three years, Woods wrote, narrated and directed 12 films, each containing secret and restricted data, which meant the inclusion of atomic information.
"It was fun and kind of ominous to put a piece of paper in your typewriter and type 'secret restricted data' in capital letters on the top of the paper," he said.
The 30-minute films, which featured short segments on about eight new naval projects such as hydrofoils - technology used on watercrafts - and Polaris - missiles fired out of submarines - were sent to the fleet and rotated for viewing among approximately 3,000 ships.
In hindsight, Woods believes the films served a purpose that was, while he was initially producing them, beyond his understanding.
"Admiral Burke wanted the people in the Navy, particularly the junior officers, particularly the young enlisted people, to see what terrific new weapon systems and new ships and airplanes were coming so they would stay in the Navy," Woods said. "From Burke's standpoint, this was a retention film."
"But fortunately nobody told us who were making it. We thought it was the scientific march of time," Woods said. "Which is why it worked. Because it was highly successful. And I'm afraid if we'd tried to make it into a retention thing it would have been nothing."
For data to be considered secret and restricted, Woods said, the only information that needed to be revealed was the kiloton yield of one weapon. Woods, therefore, devised the plan of presenting the films in a way that made them seem as highly classified as possible to garner interest. However, he was actually keeping the amount of exposed classified information at a minimum by revealing only a few kiloton yields per film.
"Most of the secrets we had were so technical, we didn't know what they meant," he said. "They knew it was exciting, but they didn't know what was secret or what was restricted. It kept them from talking too much about it, other than generalities."
By a stroke of luck, Woods had been hand-picked by the Navy to run the film project - a priority of the Naval Photo Center - as soon as he was accepted into Officer Candidate School, before he was even commissioned.
On the commander's list, next to his name was a notation stating: "Has Ph.D. in cinema."
Woods, however, did not have his Ph.D. in cinema. He had earned his bachelor's degree in speech and radio at San Jose State University and master's degree in television writing and production at Stanford University, taught a one-year professorship at Lehigh University and was an Ohio State University student for a Ph.D.
But not in cinema.
Woods was working toward a PhD in television, which, he said, was much different.
Nevertheless, he wouldn't be tarried by a technicality.
"I never told the Navy. I didn't know what they thought," he said. "But they all seemed to say, 'here's this ensign with all this experience and knowledge and he'll be good.' So I just shut up and studied a lot, worked at night and got through."
And get through he did.
"I can recall being in the Pentagon as an ensign, which is the lowest ranking naval officer, chairing a meeting of 15 or 20 people, all of whom were captains. A captain is an 06 and ensign is an 01. It just didn't make sense," Woods laughed. "But I was the producer, writer, director and they were the experts on the different projects. It was logical that I was chairing the meeting, but I always felt a little bit unnerved."
In between producing four films a year, Woods worked as a technical information officer within the Office of Naval Research, where he pursued basic research on technical information including the stratolab - pre-satellite manned balloon flights that traveled above the Earth's atmosphere - stratoscope - a telescope camera that took the sharpest photos of the sun ever taken - and the Bathyscaphe Trieste - a research craft famous for diving in the Mariana Trench to reach the deepest part of the ocean yet explored - for which he received front-page coverage from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Following filmmaking, he worked for about six years in the defense industry. Woods then went from Florida back to Washington, D.C., as he was selected to work as a Navy civilian for the Speech Bureau, located on the C-ring of the Pentagon.
It was a particularly timely career change, Woods mused.
"I had been quite a follower of John Kennedy. And he had just been killed," he said. "And he said 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' He was killed in November and I think I took this job in December."
Woods stayed in Washington for the subsequent 25 years.
During this time, after the Speech Bureau's projects concluded, he was commissioned by the Naval Material Command to write speeches for admirals.
Concurrently, Woods continued his duties with the Naval Reserve, where he served in the category of public affairs. He planned and directed more than half a dozen two-week Navy public speaking seminars and workshops across the country. He also grew involved with more than a dozen international, national and regional naval and military associations. He was active as a board member of the Reserve Officers Association, which eventually led to his one-year presidency of the 126,000-member affiliation. At that position, in 1985, he met President Ronald Reagan.
"Life is pretty much what you make it," Woods said. "The Reserve has given me an opportunity to certainly expand my horizons and do and get into a lot of things that I would never have been able to get into before. If you size your opportunities and make the best of them, they will multiply."
For a decade, Woods, who is often referred to as Navy Dave, served as a Readiness Command PAO and regional program officer. His last significant act of duty within the Reserve was spent aboard the USS Mount Whitney - a major U.S. command ship - above the Arctic Circle off the coast of Norway. For nearly two dozen days, Woods was the Senior PAO for NATO's largest exercise, overseeing reserves on six different U.S., U.K. and Canadian Navy ships.
Not bad, Woods said, for a seaman recruit from San Jose.
In addition to his 30-year career as a civilian Department of the Navy employee, Woods, who has five daughters and five grandchildren, has taught speech classes part-time at several universities, including the University of Maryland, University of Virginia, George Washington University and, now, Marshall University, throughout his life.
And with a life full of experiences, Woods sure has stories to tell.
When he was a khaki uniform ensign flying out of National Airport, now Reagan National Airport, Woods noticed a striking woman and could not help but admire her. In doing so, he bumped into the man she was with, who happened to be Sen. Jack Kennedy.
"Of course he's no fool, he knew that I was looking at his wife, that's why I ran into him," Woods said. "I said 'oh, excuse me, senator, I wasn't looking where I was going.' And he looked at me and gave me that glint look he has and a big smile and said, 'That's all right son, I was an ensign once myself.'"
Though he served four years on active duty and continued to have a 40-year career in the Navy, serving in at least 30 states and 13 nations, Woods is not eligible for membership in the VFW or American Legion, as he did not serve on active duty in a period of national emergency.
Still, for Woods, whose title is now Captain, USNR, Ret. David Woods, nothing compares to the Navy.
"By and large, I have had a chance to work on interesting subjects in interesting places and try and interest, generally, sometimes the public audience, sometimes the private audience," Woods said. "I don't know that I would have done much of anything very different if I had the chance to do it over."