A Sea Story Not Easily Told

By Tom Cutler

My captain was an extremely competent individual who was one of the best shiphandlers I have ever known. He was a demanding—almost formidable—leader, who wore the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism, earned while helping to save lives in the aftermath of a major collision at sea. It was this latter fact that also made him an extremely cautious captain when it came to placing trust in his officers of the deck. The collision he had lived through was one of the worst in U.S. Navy history, and the blame ultimately had been placed on the OOD of the ship my captain had been serving in. Through most of my tour in his destroyer, there were only three qualified OODs. One of the department heads nearly had his career ruined because our captain never did permit him to qualify. Needless to say, we who had qualified were not anxious to do anything to subvert the captain's trust in us.

When the signalman—a senior petty officer in my department—brought the message to me, I read it as one might read one's own death warrant. After several moments of careful deliberation, I handed the signal back and said, "How about losing this for me? I'll take the responsibility if anything comes of it, but I don't want the Captain to see this." (Twenty years later, this still is very difficult to put on paper.) The signalman crumpled the message, threw it over the side, and returned to the bridge. I was both relieved and heartsick.

Some weeks after the incident—weeks spend in dread fear that my captain and the commanding officer of the frigate might splice the mainbrace together in the O-Club—we were involved in a graded towing exercise in which we were to take turns with a cruiser towing one another. It was part of an intensive fleet training workshop and we were under some pressure to get through the training and to do well so that we would be ready for an impending deployment. After a thorough briefing, during which the Fleet Training Group personnel emphasized the need for very cautious acceleration while effecting the tow, we began towing the cruiser. The captain had the conn and was in sound-powered communication with the executive officer (XO), who was on the fantail.

For reasons I no longer can recall, we got off to a slow start on the exercise, and because the day was growing short, the captain's patience began to wane. Anxious to complete the exercise, he began to rush things a bit and was accelerating too quickly as he began the tow. The XO called from the fantail, warning the captain that he was straining the hawser. The OOD warned the captain that he felt we were going too fast. The captain ignored both warnings and persisted until we heard what sounded like a rifle shot as the hawser parted.

Minutes later, the captain handed the duty signalman a message addressed to the captain of the cruiser and the officer in charge of the Fleet Training Group contingent. In it, the captain blamed the incident on a faulty hawser. He later filed an official report up the chain of command repeating the faulty hawser excuse.

Within a few weeks, two naval officers serving in the same ship had compromised their integrity to save themselves embarrassment and possible damage to their careers. The signalmen who helped me with my crime surely must have thought less of me after that night when I asked him to ignore his duty and toss an official Navy communication into the sea. I know that we who served in the captain's wardroom thought less of him when we saw him write that message exonerating himself by claiming what we all knew was not true.

Why did we do this? Why did we compromise our honor in the face of adversity? Personal honor always has been among my highest ideals, and I have no doubt that the same was true for my captain. Yet both of us prostituted our integrity rather than admit we had made a mistake.

I am tempted to argue that I saw my entire naval career in jeopardy and that the Navy, next to my family and my nation, was and is the most important aspect of my life. I am tempted to assume that the captain was under great pressure to do well and that he too saw his error as more significant than perhaps it was. But both of us lost part of our soul s when we decided to cover up our mistakes rather than admit them to our superiors.

It is possible that this captain and I are atypically poor examples of naval officers who never should have been commissioned and entrusted with leadership roles in the defense of our nation. My actions on that fateful watch so many years ago dictate that I can never dismiss this as a possibility in my case. But as a somewhat objective observer in the captain's case, I can say honestly that I do not believe this to be true.

If we were not morally corrupt individuals, why did we act as though we were? Perhaps the answer lies embedded in the problems that currently are plaguing the Naval Academy, where some midshipmen are known to have lied rather than admit to their mi stakes. Perhaps there is a clue in the recent death of a Chief of Naval Operations who appears to have killed himself rather than admit he made a mistake.

Perhaps the answer can be found through a careful scrutiny of the code that we naval officers live by—or try to live by. From the earliest days of our training as naval officers—whether at the Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School, or in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps-we teach ourselves that perfection is the goal. We use terms like can do and 4.0 and 110%. We emphasize the great achievements of this Navy we are privileged to serve, and those achievements—John Paul Jones's incredible victory off Flamborough Head, the upstart U.S. frigates defeating the powerful ships of the Royal Navy in the War of 1812, the two-ocean victory at sea in World War II—take on a mythical iconography that puts them into the realm of superhuman achievement. Such things are immensely inspiring and a source of great pride, but they also may set standards that cannot always be duplicated. And when real flesh-and-blood human beings, wearing the same blue and gold as these superheroes of our past, are not always able to achieve the perfection their heritage and training demands, there may be an undeserved sense of inadequacy or failure.

We must not, under any circumstance, turn our backs on our proud past, and we should not strive for anything less than perfection, but we must allow pragmatism to coexist with idealism. We must recognize that despite the tremendous achievements of John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, and Bull Halsey, these men also made mistakes. We must convey to aspiring young naval officers that perfection is the goal and accountability is a mandatory component of responsibility, but a willingness to admit error also is essential to sound leadership. We must continually remind ourselves that we and our fellow human beings—whether they are midshipmen, lieutenants, or CNOs—are not always going to be able to do the impossible, that sometimes a 3.8 or 90% is going to have to do. This does not mean that we accept perpetual mediocrity or that we forgive every sin. It does mean that we must weigh each transgression against intent, that we must convince ourselves and those who follow in our footsteps that making a mistake is not the ultimate sin but that coverup is.

We have succeeded in inculcating in ourselves the pursuit of perfection. Now we must devote our efforts toward an equally effective pursuit of a realistic code of conduct that includes the requirement to admit our shortcomings. Our earliest training must place this requirement on an equal footing with loyalty and physical courage and ahead of our desire to be perfect. Perhaps our fitness reports can be modified to include a block for "ability to admit mistakes." Perhaps we need to indoctrinate ourselves with a list of commandments that include the following:

  • I will strive for perfection in all that I do, to uphold the proud traditions of our naval service in every way.
  • I will remember that my subordinates, my peers, my superiors, and I sometimes will fall short of perfection.
  • I will never choose to hide my mistakes but will openly admit them so that I and others might learn from them.

That night when I tossed a message into the sea, it was not the first nor the last mistake I would make in my naval career. But it stands out because I chose to cover it up rather than take the honorable course. I suspect that I am not alone among naval officers suffering the pain that such decisions cause. If we are to uphold the proud heritage of the U.S. Navy, we must recognize that there is honor in admitting our shortcomings, and we must find the means to make that recognition paramount in our thoughts and in our actions.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler retired from the U.S. Navy in 1990 and is the Executive Director of the Walbrook Naval, Maritime, and Ocean Sciences Career Academy in Baltimore, Maryland.


Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy.

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