No Greater Experience
To command a U.S. Navy ship is the top experience for a naval officer, as any post-command captain will tell you. The best parking spot, the in-port cabin and sea cabin, the absentee pennant, the driver, the crossing and arriving honors, and the chairs on the bridge are all important, but they are only the superficial trappings of command. Leading and guiding the best men and women that a democracy can offer is the real challenge and accomplishment.
The men and women who volunteer for service in the U.S. armed forces are resources that cannot be bought. No dictatorship can motivate patriots who will risk any danger to carry out their missions. There are Uniform Code of Military Justice articles that prescribe death for offenders, but dire threats have never been necessary to motivate American service members. In no other service in any country do the officers and enlisted respect one another, their positions, and their duties as well as in the U.S. Navy. This relationship has evolved, not through a dictatorial precept, but because of the unique founding and development of this nation. The words "all men are created equal" have had a difficult time being implemented, but they are words that Americans fervently believe.
Navy commanding officers stride the decks of modern technological marvels. Beans, bullets, and black oil are available in prodigious quantities to U.S. ships worldwide. Naval budgets provide the means and national security commitments provide the reasons that ships go to sea. For the captain, underway time is when he can train his crew and infuse the "right stuff" into his command-provided he has not compromised his leadership authority.
Sheep Are Driven. Cattle Are Herded. Men Are Led.
Before the evening meal on board the USS Spotless a young quartermaster on his kiddie cruise opened the door to the officer's pantry. He was there to wind and set the pantry clock. In the pantry stood three stewards, each of them urinating into a bowl of mashed potatoes. Astounded, he blurted out, "Why are you doing that?" One of the men replied, "We don't like the officers."
That quartermaster related the story to his wife three decades later, and she asked him, "What did you do?" "Nothing," he replied. "I didn't like the officers either." As a man of 50, the quartermaster would have behaved differently; but to a 17-year-old boy serving on a ship of unhappy souls, the stewards' actions seemed perfectly logical.
The Spotless-actually a Fletcher-class destroyer (with a different name)-was a miserably unhappy vessel. Home ported in Long Beach, California, in the mid-1960s, she was perfect in appearance, both below and above deck. Evolutions were carried out perfectly and always scored 4.0-or they were repeated until perfection was achieved. The purpose of perfection was not combat readiness, but rather promotion opportunity for the captain.
The Spotless's duty section and anyone else on board began work before reveille, shining and clamping down. Morning and evening colors required eight-man color guards in dress uniforms, white spats, white guard belts, and white gloves. Officers dressed formally for all meals. All work topside was performed in dress or undress uniforms. During water hours in the tropics, white uniforms were washed in buckets of saltwater and were required wearing at sea for watch and after knock off ship's work. The crew worked every evening until taps, and all weekends and holidays. Ship's work did not stop during divine services, unless so ordered by a senior officer alongside.
The department heads did not cooperate with one another. In-port officers of the deck from one department routinely harassed libertymen of another department, causing them to reshine shoes and change uniforms before allowing them ashore. During underway replenishment, the crew wore undress whites or blues, irrespective of sea conditions. The two refueling stations raced each other for the best time; coming in second meant less liberty in the next port. While entering Hong Kong in a raging monsoon, the crew stood at quarters in their dress blue uniforms because raincoats were forbidden. Mast lines were long for what often were trivial offenses. Absenteeism was wholesale, and the unit punishment book literally bulged to bursting.
During a WestPac deployment, the captain called the operations officer to the bridge, where he proceeded to verbally and physically assault him for five minutes straight. He placed the brim of his hat on the officer's forehead and screamed at him until the division officer broke down in tears. The bridge watch and one-third of the men in his division had front row seats for the show. The captain's display of temper was indecent and frequent to both officer and enlisted.
The Spotless was an unhappy ship, and everyone was at one another all the time. Ashore, no one would defend her honor; when an insult was offered, someone would reply, "You got that right, and it's worse than you know." There is a time when a sailor's silence is his way of yelling at the top his voice. In fact, the crew of the Spotless felt wretched and confused. All they had learned and read about the Navy, all they learned in recruit training and schools training command, and the eagerness that drove them to enlist-all were being de stroyed or poisoned by the present circumstances. After graduations from boot camp and A schools, they had bee ready to accept without question, as an unbreakable bond, the rigid discipline and tradition of the service they had chosen. But , there had been no one like the captain in the textbooks; and the captain, it seemed, was the reality behind the image. They had been cheated.
No captain can be excused for destroying a ship's company. No perfect evolution or mission accomplishment can be sustained when the officers and men live in fear and degradation and without respect. Perceived "dis" or disrespect is intolerable even in the gang culture of the big cities. It should be even more abhorrent in the noble profession of arms. A captain who uses his command and his crew for the sole purpose of self-promotion is showing disrespect for their sacrifices, the nation, and the Navy. The results of such behavior are pernicious and detrimental in the extreme.
Monsarrat was wrong: In the U.S. Navy, "running a good ship," even in war, does not excuse anything from a bad temper to sodomy.
The Morale Officer
The captain's actions and inaction on board ship are not limited to the ship. Promotions and rotations distribute a ship's company to other ships and stations. Those who retire or leave active duty return to civilian life. Each departing sailor takes a part of the captain with him. In most cases, what is taken is subconscious, but knowingly or unknowingly, the captain's strengths and weaknesses are to some degree assimilated into other commands and locations. The captain sets the tone, especially on the high seas. He is entirely responsible for morale. Period.
No sailor would want to go in harm's way on a ship with a captain like that of the Spotless—and none should ever have to do so. Consequently, the selection of commanding officers is an important decision. If the prospective CO is not bursting with excitement at the opportunity to command, this in itself is a warning.
The conundrum here is serious. Commanding officers must be allowed to lead their commands using their own methods and personalities, but the captain's superior must be ready to step in with advice and even corrective action, if necessary. This balance of autonomy and accountability is difficult to achieve, and no exact recipe is available. But a captain who is unable to control his own emotional condition or who abuses his command by using it to further his career is a scourge on the naval service.
In addition, the captain has a special duty to check any unprofessional excesses among his juniors. For example, on Monsarrat's first ship, a little Flower-class corvette, his "number one" or executive officer was a coarse bully. Until that officer developed an ulcer and had to be sent ashore, the morale and efficiency of the escort were suppressed. No ship should have to wait for an act of God or luck to put its command leadership on track. The captain must take action.
More than anyone else in the Navy, a captain needs feedback. Ironically, his position restricts his opportunity to receive advice and act on it. An effective tool for any captain, after taking the measure of his new command, is to formulate a plan with goals and milestones. Soliciting the opinions of his more experienced officers in the initial formulation of the plan will allow him the advantage of multiple viewpoints. Publishing his objectives and allowing for a means of assessment and feedback enable all hands to take ownership and participate intelligently. Commanding officers who have cultivated their peers, and whose superiors are approachable for informal discussions, are in an excellent position to assess their own performance. A captain who chooses to be relieved because he believes himself unable to perform his duties effectively demonstrates the highest standard of professional integrity.
In this era when wars are short, sudden, and often only one battle long, ships' companies need excellent and honest leaders. The battles of tomorrow will not be listed in the history books with names like Trafalgar, Jutland, Coral Sea, and Midway. No songs will be sung and few novels will be written about this period; terrorist attacks and one-ship engagements will be of interest only to naval buffs and historians. The captain and his ship will be on distant stations and out of mind to his countrymen. He will be alone and literally on the tip of the spear. The captain will be most confident, capable, and effective when he and his crew are in synch.
Chief Quartermaster Hunt retired in 1983, after 20 years of service. While on active duty, he served as craftmaster of the New Bedford (IX-308), as well as on board the experimental hydrofoil Plainview (AGEH-1) and other destroyers, ammunition oilers, submarines, and assault craft. In combat, he served as a gunner and boat commander on river patrol boats and as leading petty officer on Swift boats. Shore tours included service on the staffs of Commander Naval Forces Marianas, Submarine Group San Francisco, and Great Lakes Training Center.