'White Jacket' Revisited

By Chief Signalman Scott Baxter, U.S. Naval Reserve

Throughout his book, Melville makes many references to the plight of the enlisted. One expression that he used, "shipped their quarterdeck faces," is most telling. During a time of relaxed discipline in the ship, during a theatrical staged by the crew, Melville recounted the feeling as the officers and crew seemed to bond in a spirit of good will. But when the play was over, the yoke was back on and the officers had "shipped their quarterdeck faces" or returned to their true selves. Melville never spoke in favor of putting sailors above naval order or of lowering the dignity of the officers. He merely asked that enlisted men be respected as fellow shipmates and be treated accordingly. Nor did he comment harshly on officers alone. Melville also criticized senior petty officers for failing to empathize with their men and forgetting that once they too had been in lower positions.

Melville devoted many chapters to the evils of flogging and the grog ration. Obviously, this is not a problem in our Navy today—but its effects still linger. In a recent Proceedings article "Man (and Woman) Can Live on Bread (and Water)" (pp.76-78, June 1997), the author, Lieutenant Commander Filbert, lamented the restrictions placed on awarding three-day, bread-and-water punishment. It would be best for the naval service if it abolished this punishment altogether. There is no redeeming value in it as a deterrent, as a punishment, or as some cherished part of naval lore. Like flogging, it is no longer necessary.

With the exception of rarely used beer days, no sailor today can recall a time of drinking being condoned on board ship. The "people" have been forbidden to do this since the Civil War. But many of us can relate to the pressures to conform to the standard of the hard-drinking sailor. It is long past time that we stress to our young Sailors that it is not expected or required that one must get drunk to be a good shipmate. We must end this nonsense of the drunken-sailor bit by our senior petty officers and chiefs, for the sake of positive role modeling.

Melville also touched upon the traditions and ceremonies of the naval service. As a descendant of Revolutionary War heroes on both sides of his family, he was very proud of his family's role in securing our country's liberty. He did find fault, however, with excessive pomp and ceremony when it interfered with good sense and safety. As a chief signalman—the rate most concerned with honors and ceremonies—I have proudly supervised and participated in countless changes of command, frockings, retirements, and the like. My library at home consists of many volumes of naval history—Patrick O'Brian sea novels and old copies of naval magazines. My father, his two brothers, three first cousins, and many other relatives of mine all have worn Navy blue. To paraphrase St. Paul in his writings to the Philippians: "If anyone would think he has reasons to be proud of their Navy, more!" Nevertheless, I never would advocate holding to traditions and ceremonies at the expense of training or readiness. Doing something just because it always has been done is just dumb. Petty inspections, redundant ceremonial practices, and mindless posturing are detrimental to the morale of our Sailors. As Melville noted, it was not his job to recount the glorious deeds our Navy, nor is it mine. Our record speaks for itself. Let us not cheapen the memory of those Sailors who went before us by going through the motions of traditions without any thought of why they are observed.

On the surface, the "Shellback" ceremony would appear to be one of these irrelevant traditions. Nevertheless, as one who has been through it, I believe that it was one instance in which officers and enlisted were on equal footing. The captain of my ship—a "wog" himself—went through it, as did most members of the wardroom.

Participation in the crossing-the-line ceremony is not mandatory, and those who wish to abstain should not be ostracized. If done correctly, the process of becoming a shellback is a positive and, frankly, very humorous experience. It is a perfect way to blow off steam from a strenuous deployment and also a safe one, in which alcohol is not involved.

I was dismayed by the recent decision by the Marine Corps leadership to forbid its people from participating in crossing-the-line ceremonies. This tradition precedes our Navy's founding and is one of our last remaining customs from the age of sail. The recent sailing of the USS Constitution spoke volumes of the dedication and hard work needed to transform Old Ironsides into a living ship once again. In this age of technology and science, let's neither lose sight of our roots nor forget our common heritage. The Marines, in spite of my comments on the shellback ceremony, are to be emulated in their attitude toward their history.

The Marine Corps Birthday on 10 November is a day all Marines are taught to remember, to honor all those who preceded them. The Navy's birthday is observed haphazardly at best. We do not need to take training time away from our Sailors to indoctrinate them on the life of John Paul Jones. Our senior petty officers and chiefs should take it upon themselves to know the histories of our ships and commands and impart that knowledge to their Sailors. Outside my reserve center sits a bell from the CSS Atlanta , which became the USS Atlanta after her capture off the coast of Georgia. I would venture to say that the majority of our Sailors pass this bell and never give it a second thought why it is there or from where it came. One can practically hear the groans now: So what does this have to do with getting my personal qualifications standards completed or making rate? Nothing. But it is our people—not inspections—that make up our Navy, and often we lose sight of that in the bustle to keep the department head happy. The captain of the Constitution believes that the restoration of the ship can stimulate a national dialogue on our roles as citizens of this country. A knowledge of our respective ships and stations history can act as a starting point: for a grasp on where we have been and what we can all attain as a truly effective team.

Today's Sailors are smarter and more educated than those of Melville's day. With the advent of personal computers and other technology, whitehats today have far greater access to self-education. It is common for many of them to have as much college experience as the officers who command them. Melville recounted his experiences not only with officers but also with senior petty officers, and reflected poorly upon their conduct. Too often, they lorded it over the men by only the virtue of some bit of braid on their coats. Speaking from the chief's perspective, we must be the voice of the "people," never forgetting that once we too wore dungarees. We all should strive to represent our Sailors better and to teach our junior officers the art of leadership.

We are at a critical juncture in the history of our Navy. The "people" cannot tolerate public scandals and failures in leadership. As Melville so accurately stated, "the worst of our evils we blindly inflict upon ourselves; Our officers cannot remove them, even if they could." A copy of this book would enhance every chiefs' mess and ship's library, if its message is taken to heart. The message of White Jacket transcends rigging and 42-pounders—and touches the soul of any one of us who have worn crackerjacks. Above all, as Melville writes, "let us never train our murderous guns inboard," we must look to ourselves to solve the problems that beset us. Only then can we look. on with pride as our Navy enters the next century as the finest fighting force afloat.

Chief Petty Officer Baxter is a reservist assigned to the LST Support Detachment “D” in support of the Lamoure County (LST-1194). He served active duty tours on board the Robison (DDG-12) and the Jack Wlliams (FFG-24) before affiliating with the Naval Reserve, and was recalled to active duty in support of Desert Storm. 

 

 
 

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