When William Graham Claytor Jr. was asked last weekend about rumours that he would be picked as President Carter's Navy Secretary, the response was predictable.

As board chairman of Southern Railway Co., he never would answer questions about possible merger or acquisition moves until there was something he though should be announced, Calytor said.

Similarly, he said, there would be no discussion about a post in the Carter administration until the incoming President's staff wanted to make an announcement.

Late Wednesday, Carter nominated Claytor for the Navy job, an apointment expected to win early approval by the Senate.

Claytor, a lawyer by training and profession, has a reputation or no-nonsense adherence to the law and business ethics. He became chief executive of a railroad firm because of his shrewd work as the firm's top Washington lawyer and he has been credited generally with showing the nation the right way to run a railroad.

But Claytor also knows when rigid rules should be bent, and the best example of that trait comes from the railroad executive's Navy service during World War II.

Claytor entered the Navy as an ensign in 1941 and was a lieutenant commander when ended active duty in 1946. He was commanding officer of submarine chaser and of two destroyer escorts.

On Aug. 2, 1945, Claytor was commander of a new destroyer escort, the Cecil J. Doyle. A plane flew over, headed in the opposite direction, and Claytor heard some very bad news when he talked with the pilot. Some "survivors" had been sighted floating in the shark-infested Pacific, along with an oil slick.

There was no indication as to what had happened, but the airplane pilot suggested to Claytor that he might get orders soon to shift course. No ships were in the vicinity of the survivors at the time.

Here's how Richard F. Newcomb described Claytor's reaction, in the 1958 book. Abandon Ship:

"With cynicism born of experience, Claytor knew it might be hours before such orders got through the constant communications jam to him. Why wait? So the Doyle made a 180-degree turn and Claytor rang for full speed ahead . . . Official orders came through an hour and half later. It is not possible to say how many lives Claytor's stolen 90 minutes saved, but not one who lived would have wanted to risk it."

The first men abroad Clayton's ship when he arrived, revealed what had happened. The USS Indianapolis, a Navy cruiser, had sunk in 12 minutes after being hit by a Japanese torpedo on July 30. Only three days earlier, the cruiser had delivered easential components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb at Tinian in the Marianas.

About 400 of 1,196 men on the ship had gone down with it and the rest had been stranded with the sharks for five nights and four days before Claytor's ship arrived. Only 316 survived.

It was nighttime and despite warnings of more enemy subs in the area, Claytor ordered a 21-incn searchlight beamed forward, with lookouts to spot survivors. Another 24-inch searchlight was pointed skyward, as a bacon of hope. Men 60 miles away saw it shinning in the clouds. "It give them the last ounce of courage they needed." Newcomb wrote.

The decisiveness displayed by Claytor in the Pacific campaign was developed in this legal training of the 1930s - first at Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Law Review, and then as law clerk to two of the nation's most distinguished jurists, U.S. Judge Learned Hand and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Claytor, who will be 65 in March, was born in Roanoke and graduated from the Universiy of Virginia in 1933.

After World War II, he rejoined the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling and Washington-based Southern Railway became one of his clients. The railroad operates from Washington to Florida and the Mississippi RIver, with major operations in Atlanta.

As the railroad's top lawyer, Claytor directed a four-year fight to offer innovative freight services. His challenge to regulation by the Interstate commerce Commission went all the way to the Supreme Court before Southern was able to begin offering shippers the use of its Big John Hopper cars, and the casesubsequently has been cited as a prime example of bad government.