A Naval Career

By Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, USN (Ret.)

Perhaps it was Benjamin Stoddert, who served as our first Secretary of the Navy from 1798 to 1801, who gave the Navy its good start. When he was appointed, it was said of him: “A more fortunate selection could not well have been made. To the most ardent patriotism, he united an inflexible integrity, a discriminating mind, great capacity for business, and the most persevering industry.”

One who embarks upon a military career cannot expect to amass riches, but he will have a wonderful opportunity for service to his country. He can look forward to a full and interesting life. Patriotism must be the keynote of his existence, duty and obedience his guides. Our ancestors fought the first war for independence to establish themselves the rights of free men and by doing so they set a mighty example to the rest of the world. The freedom which has come down to us from our forefathers is our most precious heritage. It must be jealously guarded. It must not be endangered by neglect. It cannot be taken for granted. The armed services are the guardians of that freedom and it behooves each individual member of those forces to render in full measure a selfless service of duty, loyalty, and obedience.

The things which I have in mind were well said and illustrated in an article by the late Rear Admiral George R. Clark, USN, which appeared in the Naval Institute Proceedings in 1915 and from which I will quote. (These things are timeless.)

“…‘Duty’ is the sublimest word in the English language.

“In our early years the idea of duty does not appeal with the force acquired by experience, for youth is slow to accept the sacrifice it so often involves, loath to agree to the suppression of self, reluctant to acknowledge another’s authority without question.

“The passing years teach us that seemingly little duties are always big with possibilities, with what they lead to, with the part they invariably play in the formation of character.

“In our proper and commendable eagerness to excel with the particular gun, ship, division or squadron, there is a danger of forgetting that this ambition, to obtain its best effect, must have as an ultimate aim the efficiency, not of the unit but of the whole; not of the ship but of the fleet. This spirit, this broader outlook should be the spirit of the service guiding every wearer of the uniform in all that he does, from the latest recruit to the Commander-in-Chief. Brilliant as were the exploits of Hull and Decatur they were far outweighed in importance and far-reaching effects by those of Perry and Macdonough. Single ship actions alone can never succeed in gaining that command of the sea without which no victory can be complete, no peace be secure.

“History shows that a great majority of the important defeats were due to failure on the part of some one to measure up to the standard that forbids self-glorification, and demands devotion and loyalty to the service, singleness of purpose, forgetfulness of self.

“If Landais had been impressed with this idea, and been animated by an ambition for the fleet, the task of John Paul Jones off Flamborough Head would have been easier, his exploits less costly. The only incident that marred the Battle of Lake Erie and the glory that followed it was the failure that nearly lost the battle. Napoleon’s success in his early campaigns was due in great measure to the loyalty of his marshals, to their untiring devotion to the one idea, the grand strategy of the army, not the restricted movements of the division of corps, and it was not until de Grouchy failed him that his downfall occurred, and Waterloo became a synonym for defeat. If the gallant Custer had confined his movement to a reconnaissance, as ordered, the expedition against Sitting Bull would not have ended in disaster for Custer the junior but in a victory for Terry the senior, and for the service. This same battle furnished the spectacle of a mistake within a mistake when Reno neglected to render prompt aid to his doomed leader. Rear Admiral Mann brought disgrace upon himself and grave danger to Jervis, when, disregarding his orders, he abandoned the latter in Corsica and sailed with his division for England. Bruce, in his life of Lee, referring to the defeat of the Southern Army at Gettysburg, asserts that the most distressing feature after all was that it revealed Lee’s entire lack of a lieutenant upon whom he could rely for the prompt and skilled execution of his plans.”

Admiral Clark has cited only a few instances wherein the lack of the qualities of self-negation and loyalty and a bid for grandstand play on the part of senior commanders resulted in disaster or near disaster. There are many others, and similar instances could be cited from the more recent wars. Because of the magnitude and complication of modern warfare, requiring a unified command in the combat area, selfless service on the part of the commanders of the several services, a willingness loyally to cooperate and coordinate in the interest of the over-all mission, is of greater importance today than ever before.

High qualities of personal and military character are expected in young officers, as well as in older ones, and, as the young officers grow up in the service and gain experience, they will have many opportunities to observe in their seniors the qualities which they would like to incorporate in their own characters. Selfishness, callousness, and a lack of confidence in the make-up of a superior, and the consequences thereof, will be obvious. On the other hand, confidence born of knowledge and skill, self-discipline, firmness tempered by justice and humanity, sound judgment, courage and integrity, displayed by a senior, will foster a desire to emulate and will give the junior a foundation upon which to build.

There is no place for chronic irascibility in the make up of an officer. Tact, patience, justice, and firmness are as necessary today as long ago and they always will be. None of us can be perfect, but we can shoot for a high standard. Many undesirable traits will be forgiven by seniors and juniors if the better traits predominate. I can think of two which seem to stand high among the other desirable traits of character: a sense of justice and its practice, and professional competence.

One does not attain popularity by courting it. In a military organization it stems from performance of duty. A half century ago we were taught to “get work out of men.” There was an implication of driving them. Through the years, that has changed and today it is a matter of leadership. Enlisted men as a whole are highly intelligent. They know that an officer has a job to do and they respect him for doing it. They expect to be held up to the mark and in return they expect a “square deal.” They hold in contempt a bully or a sadist as much as they do a “softie,” but they hold in high respect a competent leader who administers justice with firmness, thoughtfulness, and kindness. We all know that a taut, highly disciplined ship is not only a smart ship but a happy one, one of which the ship’s company can be proud.

Professional competence is, of course, essential. It comes with experience and it can be attained only by hard work. I know of no short cuts. A young line officer joining his first ship from the Naval Academy or an ROTC unit or from civilian life would do well to read the Rules of the Road once a month for at least two years. Those rules and the emergency procedures of ship handling must be indelibly impressed upon his mind and must be reviewed from time to time throughout his career. The young deck officer can learn much from closely observing his seniors handling the ship in maneuvers and in entering and leaving port. By remaining on or near the bridge when not on watch, he can see others function and familiarize himself with signal books and instructions, and he will soon realize that they are not as complicated and difficult as they at first seemed to be.

He should not wait for experience to come to him but should reach out for responsibility—be a volunteer. Responsibility and authority go hand-in-hand. With each new responsibility he will learn to exercise authority and to make decisions, than which there is nothing more important. There is nothing sadder to see than lack of decision in a commanding officer or flag officer and, in time of war, it is absolutely dangerous. On the other hand, there is nothing that makes for a commander’s peace of mind as does the ability to make decisions and cast away doubts.

The same line of thought applies to the development of young officers assigned to all other departments in the ship. It is essential to “know your stuff” and this is within the intellectual capacity of all who attain officer rank in the services. It requires only diligent application and initiative. A former Superintendant of the Military Academy at West Point stated recently that he would like to be able to say that the successful wartime commanders came from the top graduates of their respective classes but that was not the case.

Being human we all make mistakes. It is said that we learn from our own mistakes, but that is true only if each mistake is followed up and thoroughly analyzed. A little self-analysis is good for the soul at anytime and it is particularly important when one has been delinquent. Whether it be a failure which has been called to the attention of the delinquent in no uncertain terms or is merely one of which he is aware and has not been observed by others makes no difference. One’s reliability is at stake. An immediate study of the technical points involved will ward off that human tendency to rationalize one’s conduct and to justify himself by fallacious arguments. And, the professional knowledge and competence of a young officer will be enhanced by an understanding of the points involved.

Our early Navy was modeled after the British Royal Navy, then the supreme naval power, and from it we inherited the priceless traditions and ethics of command, and the spirit and code of fighting conduct at sea. Along with authority and responsibility, our Navy has always demanded of its leaders a high standard of performance and exacted a strict accountability. Sometimes accountability has seemed harsh or even cruel, but without it there would be an end to responsibility and an end to confidence and trust in the men who lead.

We often hear an assignment spoken of as a “good job” or an “undesirable job,” but in many instances, I might say most instances, the job is what you make it. Many a fine serving reputation has been made by a young officer who would not have chosen the job to which he was assigned. By diligent application, zeal, and initiative, a well-trained young officer will raise the character of almost any job to which he is assigned.

In the field of education we should all try to measure up to the ideal of a “gentleman of liberal education” and our efforts should start when we are young. It is extremely important today that a military man keep abreast of the times by reading the current articles, speeches, and editorials on world affairs.

In furtherance of the formal education a young officer receives at service academies and schools, he should, of course, from time to time reread portions of his professional books and pamphlets to refresh his technical knowledge and he should read articles and books on new developments in the naval profession in general. In this age of science there is available plenty of professional reading and, for the most part, it is fascinating reading.

Also, in his leisure hours on long voyages at sea he will have the coveted opportunity to read tales of adventure, the biographies of famous men of action and accomplishment, and the history of past eras and civilizations. Surely, he will endeavor to learn the history and customs and the languages of the countries he visits. Any or all of these will not only bring to him hours of enjoyment but they will help him to understand and to contemplate with equanimity the complicated and interesting world in which we live.

Education continues always for those who enjoy life most and for those who render greatest service to mankind.

It is highly desirable that a military man speak and write the English language clearly and forcefully. It is essential that he be articulate in the formulation of orders and directives. In our younger days we learn to read and interpret our written orders and to execute them both in their letter and in their spirit. A commander in contact with his subordinates must be able clearly to impress upon them what is to be done and its purpose. In his written directives he will tell them what to do, where to do it, and when. How to do it is a matter for the subordinate to work out.

Needless to say, a military man should keep in good physical condition. That does not mean that he must be a super athlete. It does not mean that he should have the physical force and stamina to continue to function efficiently through long periods of stress and strain.  He must be physically able to respond when called upon in an emergency or in unexpected circumstances. A physically exhausted man cannot exercise that mental energy and sound judgment required so often in peace or war. A watch officer be thoroughly rested when he relieves the deck; a commanding officer should take advantage of every opportunity to relax in case he is unexpectedly required to be on the bridge all night; and a flag officer should so delegate authority to his staff that he is relieved of the unnecessary details. Substitute “must” for “should” and you will know what I mean.

In conclusion, a war-time commander should be a fighter, combining with his physical courage a sound judgment, tact and diplomacy where they are needed, the moral courage to speak his mind when the occasion requires it, and, above all, the willingness to accept responsibilities and the stamina to stand up under the strain of them.

Admiral Kinkaid , graduated from the Naval Academy in 1908, was in command of a cruiser division during the early actions in the Pacific in World War II including the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. He commanded the Enterprise carrier group at the time of the Guadalcanal campaign, was Commander, Northern Pacific Force in the Aleutian campaign, January-October, 1943, and was Commander, Seventh Fleet and Commander, Allied Naval Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, from November, 1943, to the end of the war, including the Battle for Leyte Gulf.



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