Novel gives nod to Navy Yard skilled workers


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Jim Brennan grew up on Brighton Street in Mayfair, attending St. Matthew and Father Judge (class of 1972), then started a career at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard just a month out of high school.

Brennan, a welder, worked at the Navy Yard until it closed in 1995, then worked for the Department of Defense until he retired in 2009.

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While at the Navy Yard, he was part of a large team that worked on the USS Saratoga. Not everyone was happy with the work, as an influential Navy admiral blamed employees for shoddy workmanship on the vessel. Others blamed a robotic welding process embraced by the admiral, but Brennan and others were sent to Mayport, Florida to make the fixes.

The repairs were made to the Navy’s satisfaction, but there was a cost. Four men from the Navy Yard were killed when the car in which they were riding was hit by an alleged drunken driver.

Many years later, Brennan began writing an essay to memorialize the four victims – his co-workers and friends – of the accident, which also left two Navy Yard men injured.

The essay he planned led to another way to memorialize those men and honor everyone who worked at the Navy Yard – a conspiracy thriller book titled Once a Welder.

“It became like a labor of love,” Brennan said of the book. “It just took off and turned into this conspiracy thriller.”

Once a Welder – available on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites – is set in the 1980s and based on true events.

“The basis for the book is a true story,” Brennan said. “All the characters are composites of people I came across over the years.”

The book follows Jimmy McKee, a talented 20-something welder who grew up in Mayfair and went from apprentice to foreman in just three years. He quickly realizes the serious job hazards, and is told he’ll either find another job soon or he’ll stay for life.

Jimmy works during the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), which would bring the Saratoga and three other carriers to the Navy Yard and triple the workforce. As the book notes, taking bakers, cops and hot dog vendors and training them to be pipefitters, welders and boilermakers was a feat that rivaled making the lame walk.

Jimmy ultimately uncovers a conspiracy that reaches the highest echelons of the Navy in the person of Admiral Lawrence Foley, powerful commander of the Aircraft Carrier Fleet. Foley convinced the Secretary of the Navy to award a contract to and mandate an unproven welding process used by a civilian company. The ethically challenged Foley is later named chief operations officer of the company upon retirement from the Navy.

After his four co-workers die tragically in a car crash, Jimmy discovers that it was no accident, that it was a murder involving a conspiracy linked to money and power. It will take someone who was “once a welder” to get to the bottom of it.

Brennan said of the real-life admiral characterized by Foley, “He wasn’t a friend of the shipyard,” but stresses the book is a conspiracy thriller.

“I made adjustments so nobody is recognizable,” he said.

During the course of writing the book, he went to Mayport, Florida.

“It was neat being down there,” he said. “Some things were just the same.”

After finishing the book, Brennan reunited with some of his former co-workers.

“The people I’ve gotten together with loved it,” he said of the book. “I haven’t gotten any negative feedback.”

Brennan began as an apprentice welder before becoming a foreman and general foreman, jobs that required traveling. He recalls the “sense of accomplishment” he and his co-workers felt when the job was done and the ship went out to sea.

“It was a big part of my life, working at the shipyard, in that environment,” he said. “I have a lot of admiration for people who work with their hands, the craftsmanship. You get a real appreciation, and I tried my best in the book to convey that.”

What’s next for Brennan? He is working on a novel about a young Irish warehouseman from Mayfair who is raised by a single mom, but discovers a series of family secrets.

Brennan hopes to gain the same satisfaction he did after completing Once a Welder.

Soon into his Navy Yard career, he witnessed a painter burned to death and made sure to include in the book’s acknowledgments how dangerous, arduous and challenging the work could be.

He wrote, “The talented men and women of the skilled trades who I worked with alongside for more than twenty years provided color and energy to the characters and scenes in this story.” ••

To buy the book, go to or 

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