Journal of a First Command

By Admiral James Stavridis

Dodging a Bullet

Haiti looms, malignant and slightly nonsensical, just over the horizon. The seas have picked up, perhaps to sea state four, with a significant chop and over twenty knots of wind blowing, although it is clear and beautiful and we can see all the way to the dusty foothills of old Hispaniola.

The ship motors along apace. Today's crisis was a very near disaster. A major fuel oil spill inside the module of number three gas turbine generator. A moment to explain:

Our ship's electricity is generated by three large jet engines, which turn generators and power the ship. Today, one of the generators suffered a fuel spill inside the module that encases it. The potential for catastrophe in such situations is very high, because if the stream of pressurized fuel had hit a sufficiently hot engine component, a major fire could have resulted.

At a minimum, such a fire would knock out about a third of the ship's electrical capacity and destroy the expensive engine.

This would necessitate pulling off station and steaming, with our figurative tail between our legs, into Puerto Rico for an engine repair.

At worst, should the fire have spread to the surrounding engine room, the ship itself could have been endangered by explosion, and, at the darkest side of the equation, by many deaths and great damage to the ship. It has happened at sea, and not long ago, in a Spruance-class destroyer.

Fortunately, that was not the case today.

An alert watch stander in the space saw the stream of fuel coming out of the generator and punched the generator off the line before the fuel-air mixture could explode. We were helped by the fact that the generator itself was quite cold, having been off the line since midmorning. We spent the rest of the day cleaning and sorting out what had happened—the normal problem—people rushing to do a job had not completely bolted down a pressurized fuel connector line between the fuel filter and the rest of the generator.

The sound you hear is a bullet whizzing by all our heads on good ship Barry .

Like I told my engineer, "Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you are good. Today we were lucky. From now on we need to be good."

Out and About

I feel better today, having spent much of the past twenty-four hours roaming the ship.

All captains are different. Some can govern effectively from the relative obscurity of an Olympian detachment. I think of a captain more as a servant than as a master, so I must know the needs of the crew. The best way to learn the needs of the crew is from their mouths to my ear, through conversation in the thousands of unlikely quiet (and not so quiet) corners that make up a U.S. Navy warship.

Thus, I am apt to be found in conversation in the forward engine room, the sonobuoy storage locker, or the mess decks rather than sitting at my desk doing paperwork. I am lucky in one way—paperwork is easy for me, especially at the moment with my superb second in command, Charlie Martoglio, who sends only photo-perfect documents to me. Thus, I can give each a quick review and sign with full confidence that we won't get ourselves in trouble.

That frees me up for my walkabouts, which occur two or three times a day, and always involve talking to at least forty or fifty crew members each day. I think I therefore have a good sense of what goes on, good and bad, below my decks.

Helping me are a network of people throughout the ship who I think are good barometers of crew morale and sensibility—the command master chief, Stan Brown, who moved his office to a small space next to the chow line so that he sees literally every crew member two or three times a day; the chief master at arms, the ship's cop, if you will, who ensures good order and discipline as well as the kind of good morale that comes from high standards and pride; the career counselor, who has a steady stream of individuals coming and going through his small office, discussing the pros and cons of a Navy career in this turbulent era; the executive officer, of course, with whom I spend about an hour each day at various times covering the topics that ignite and decompress our small city at sea; and many, many others—from seaman to the ship's barber, they all have a story to tell, a data point to contribute, to the tapestry that is the USS Barry .

Plane Guard

The last twenty-four hours have been the hardest of this young command tour.

It began with twelve hours yesterday—from noon to midnight—around the huge, dangerous aircraft carrier George Washington . There is a function that destroyers like mine perform for the carriers, called "plane guard." It is where I drive my relatively tiny nine-thousand-ton ship into a very tight station—about fifteen hundred yards—behind the monstrous one-hundred-thousand-ton carrier. The slightest wrong turn by the carrier, and she will cut my ship in half.

Such a fate is not idle speculation. It has happened twice since the Second World War, most recently when the cruiser Belknap was hit and almost sunk by the carrier Kennedy .

The CO of the Belknap was court-martialed and disgraced.

Interestingly, the son of that CO served as combat systems officer on my last ship and was a terrific shiphandler—best I've ever seen. I suspect his dad was too; but when the carrier hit, he was down in the wardroom watching a movie. When I read about the incident, years ago as an ensign, I thought, "Well, I might not make the right decision as a CO, the great and perfect shiphandling decision that would have saved the ship; but I will at least be in a position to make it—I'll be on the bridge whenever my ship is in plane guard around a carrier."

So, yesterday I chained myself to the bridge throughout the long afternoon—when there was enough light to see the carrier clearly—and through the still longer night, when it was black and overcast and raining hard and all I could make out—only fifteen hundred yards ahead—was the dim light of the landing pattern lights on the carrier. We turned and sped up and slowed down and played in the shadow of the enormous ship—like a dog playing under an elephant that might at any moment decide to sit down on you and end the game rather abruptly. And we came through all right, . . . I was only really nervous once, when the carrier swung around me and faced straight at me, and I could see its bow light a few thousand yards away, seemingly innocuous except when you think of the enormous tons and tons and tons of massive ship hurtling along behind that single white light.

We cleared from plane guard about midnight. For the next five hours, I tried to sleep but couldn't. Tossing and turning, full of coffee and the danger high, I waited, called over and over again by my watch standers, for the lightless dawn.

At dawn, the seas were higher than I've seen them in the mid-Atlantic this time of year. The reason?

The poetically named "North Wall" effect.

When a cold high pressure center hits the warm air of the Gulf Stream—once in a while this time of year—it creates sudden massive seas. Up to twenty-five feet of tossing and turning green water, vision obscured by blowing foam and scud, fully overcast sky without a discernible horizon—that is the bleak end. We haven't hit that—yet.

But this morning was the worst I've seen in long time.

The ship rode well. This class is designed to be a good "seakeeper," a wonderful maritime expression that means it rides smoothly despite the effects of the sea.

When the message came in predicting the North Wall effect, we had a brief moment of euphoria, hoping we would be ordered into port. No such luck, however. Instead, we were ordered north into a storm haven at sea, an imaginary box on the oceans surface, where we patrol hopefully, awaiting the return of good weather.

And that is where dawn found me, the dawn weak and pallid, bleak and gray. And I, tired, drawn, looking forty-five instead of thirty-eight, a bristly beard and two days without a shower, with five ships within a mile of me, a dozen radios chattering different directions, and a complex shiphandling exercise to complete ahead.

By 1300 it was all over. We had spun the ship through its paces, turning and wheeling and exchanging stations with the other ships in the line, stretching me and the executive officer thin, but finally getting it done.

Sub Hunting

It has been a demanding week of antisubmarine warfare, that greatest of all artistic feats of war—the hunting, finding, and killing of submarines.

Submarines are like steel sharks—quiet, silent, and deadly.

They are designed to hunt and kill. Occasionally, it becomes necessary to find and destroy them—to keep open sea lanes of communication, to sweep an area and make it safe for allied shipping. Destroying a submarine, I think, is the hardest task in naval warfare.

The submarine must be found within the roiling ocean.

The nuclear ones travel deep—over a thousand feet—and fast: they are as quick as any ship. Many advantages are theirs—stealth, counterdetection range, speed over most ships, sensors. Yet, surface ships have advantages too. They carry torpedoes, both ship launched and rocket thrown, with ranges out to eight miles. Better yet, they carry aircraft that can harry the submarine for hundreds of miles, much like a coon hound can eventually bring down a convict. And they have reasonably capable sensors for picking out a submarine in the depths—sonars with ranges over a hundred miles passively and twenty-five miles actively.

So, our task—that of my ship and half a dozen others under the command of a senior captain—is to find two submarines and simulate killing them. We spend five days hunting up and down the east coast of the United States, searching, localizing, and attacking. At the end of the week, I think we have done well—my ship's tally is fourteen confirmed attacks, and we have held contact on the submarine consistently.

Yet, the submarines have gotten in their shots as well, and they have launched a fair number at our ships.

In a real war? Who knows? I think our surface force gave roughly as good as we got—which is a tribute to the small force of only two U.S. submarines. Of course, this is antisubmarine warfare against U.S. submariners, the best in the business.

Against third-world submarines and submariners, I am confident we could carry the field with an even greater degree of certainly, assuming our attack included aviation assets and, better yet, our own U.S. submarines. But there is simply no question that submarines are deadly weapons of war and have an asymmetric advantage in ocean combat.

Looking at Eternity

The ammo is aboard, some of it bright and shiny, some old and corroded, all of it swung aboard on big pallets run across the churning water between the two ships as we cut through the sea. It is interesting to realize that some of the gun rounds were manufactured before I was born, back in the early 1950s. Old ammo—like old soldiers, I guess—never dies. It just gets slung from ship to ship as the deployment dates come around.

After the ammo load, our next tasking was to pick up one of the heavy amphibious ships and escort it to the shore for a mission of recovering pilots downed inland. We provided shotgun services. The ship was an LPD, a large, heavy gray hull commanded by a senior captain. I tried to stay out of its way, which wasn't easy because our two ships were twisting and turning in the rising seas all morning. The situation wasn't helped by the sudden appearance of a dense fog, which made the LPD vanish from sight, even though it was only a thousand yards away.

When the fog hit, I backed the Barry out to about four thousand yards and tried to keep track of the amphib on the radar. A frustrating morning, and I nearly, for the first time in years, lost my temper with one of the ensigns who had the conn. The ensign just didn't keep full situational awareness of the danger inherent in the weather and proximity to a big, badly handled ship. I kept it cool, but I had a better and more experienced conning officer take the conn. Inside, I was seething with the ensign's lack of initiative and competence—and he a Naval Academy graduate to boot.

After a trying four hours close to the shore on top of the amphib, I was stunned to receive a call to proceed to the flagship, the distant carrier George Washington , for briefings on a "special mission" for the Barry . The seas were rising high by this time, the weather closing in, and I was in no mood to fly to the aircraft carrier. But the admiral called and off I went.

I hated to hand the ship over to the XO and the wardroom.

It was, of course, the first time the Barry had ever been under way without me—or without a captain, for that matter, as I'm sure my predecessor never left the ship while it was under way. The barometer had dropped significantly, and I told them to run down the seas, heading for a rendezvous with the oiler. Then I strapped into the small Lamps MK III helicopter—my courtesy ride from the USS Doyle —and headed off to the carrier.

As the small helo lifted off and headed into the buffeting wind, I found myself looking at the thunderstorm clouds and thinking, I am looking at something. What is it, I asked myself? A moment's reflection, and I felt the cares of the day and the frustrations of the moment drain out of me, along with anxiety for the meeting ahead. I realized that in the face of those big black clouds, which form and reform endlessly over the uncaring sea, that all of this will pass along in its due course, leaving very little in its wake. As Joseph Conrad, the greatest sea writer of the nineteenth century, said of this sort of sight, it is "the magic monotony of existence between sky and water." In the end, I am looking at eternity.

In twenty-six minutes, the helo touched down gently and smoothly on the massive flagship's stable and placid deck—for the carrier, ten times the size of the Barry , responds not at all to the wind or the rising seas.

Special Mission

On the carrier, I met very briefly with the rear admiral commanding our battle group. He had just received word he was to have a second star, and seemed happy and a bit distracted, as though something important—more important than talking to a commander—was about to happen. That benign distraction, I thought, was the natural reaction of about 99 percent of all admirals to the presence of anyone junior to them. It was something I consciously tried to avoid in the Barry , but in fairness, I was, of course, much closer to the people who worked for me—who numbered only 340— than the admiral, who had ten thousand and more working for him.

He told me to get with the SEALs for the special mission briefing, said we were doing a great job—something he tells everyone—and dismissed me.

I wandered into the flag mess and found the SEALs, a lieutenant commander, a lieutenant, and a lieutenant junior grade. All were right out of the movies—attractive, sandyhaired surfer-looking guys. Their plan was pretty loose and basically consisted of the Barry using her stealth qualities to sneak into the beach and bring out a SEAL platoon, which had been doing some kind of special operation ashore.

We discussed communications, water depth, night vision devices, signals, procedures. I briefed them back. They seemed surprised I could remember what they just told me. And in a few moments we were done.

I took my charts and scribbled notes back to the Barry —after a quick chat with my immediate boss, the commodore—and was safely back in my own wardroom, on the badly pitching deck, within the hour.

Night Extraction

The SEAL pickup went flawlessly.

As I sat on the bridge wing, watching the sun go down—slowly—at 1900, I really understood the meaning of the special forces motto: We own the night. All I wanted was darkness, when my nine-thousand-ton destroyer would simply melt into quiet blackness, radar systems and sonars silent, and become a small blip on a dully watched coastal radar, lit only by the dim bulbs of a "fishing boat."

Finally, the sun set, and we motored slowly the final twenty-five miles in the dark at only seven knots, wondering if the SEALs would make the rendezvous. They were scheduled for a window from 2200 to 0100, and I suspected we wouldn't see them until well after midnight. Yet we had no sooner slowed to two knots at the rendezvous point then I heard the excited call of the OOD (officer of the deck) for me to come to the bridge.

I saw them first with the low-light night vision devices mounted on the bridge wings—two winking, distant lights, tiny and small on the roiling sea surface, closing the ship.

A silenced motor of some kind, and suddenly they were alongside the ship, zipping under the bow, and I turned sharply to starboard and made a lee from the wind.

They clambered aboard, huge and burly in the dark night, four-day beards, loaded with gear. We fed them a hot meal, tossed their gear in a corner of the helo hangar, turned into the wind, and their helicopter arrived and swept them back to the carrier.

And we were left a hundred miles in enemy waters, our SEAL mission complete. I turned the ship away from land and motored gently into the black night.

Unbelievably Old, So Young

We have six midshipmen aboard from six different colleges.

All seem like impressive young men in different ways, although two of them have told me they have no interest in the surface Navy and instead are interested in the Supply Corps and intelligence, respectively.

I have always been confused as to why on earth you would sign up for the Navy if you want to do anything besides drive ships or submarines. If you want to fly, it might make more sense to join the Air Force, although the challenge of landing on the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier has obvious appeal to the very daring. Yet, I suppose the basic allure of going to sea has an appeal, even for those who aren't directly in the ship line of business, and of course we're lucky to have good pilots, supply officers, and intelligence officers who support what we do at sea so well.

Still, I spend time with all six, coaching them on the bridge, on shiphandling, on leadership, on life at sea.

I feel unbelievably old at thirty-nine talking to midshipmen in their early twenties. They are so utterly unformed.

And I look at my face in the mirror, the faint lines around my eyes, grown from looking into too many dawns at sea after long night watches.

My thinning hair, the hard cheekbones, the thin, frequently tired face.

It is the mask of command staring back at me in the mirror, I suppose.

God, the midshipmen are so young. Too young to be at sea.

Admiral Stavridis is the commander of U.S. Southern Command. His other assignments have included command of a destroyer squadron and a carrier strike group. The admiral holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Tufts University and is the author or co-author of several other books, including Command at Sea and the Division Officer's Guide . Read more from the book Destroyer Captain .

Admiral James Stavridis assumed duties as Commander of European Command and as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in early summer 2009. Stavridis is a 1976 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a native of South Florida.

A Surface Warfare Officer, he commanded the Destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) from 1993-1995, completing UN/NATO deployments to Haiti and Bosnia, and a combat cruise to the Arabian Gulf. Barry won the Battenberg Cup as the top ship in the Atlantic Fleet under his command.

In 1998, he commanded Destroyer Squadron 21 and deployed to the Arabian Gulf, winning the Navy League's John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.

From 2002-2004, he commanded Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, conducting combat operations in the Arabian Gulf in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

From 2006-2009, he commanded U.S. Southern Command in Miami, focused on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ashore, he has served as a strategic and long range planner on the staffs of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has also served as the Executive Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and the Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense.

Stavridis earned a PhD and MALD from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in International Relations in 1984, where he won the Gullion Prize as outstanding student. He is also a distinguished graduate of both the National and Naval War Colleges.

He holds various decorations and awards, including two awards of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Ser
vice Medal and five awards of the Legion of Merit. He is author or co-author of several books on naval ship handling and leadership, including Command at Sea, Destroyer Captain, and Partnership for the Americas about Latin America.

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