World War II was responsible for the creation of a large number of junior command billets. Although the Navy has diminished in size since then, a large number of commands still exist at sea for the young line officer. These commands constitute, in a two-fold sense, the chance of a lifetime. To the young officer they offer an opportunity to develop command experience. To the Navy the existence of these smaller ships gives the opportunity to develop a young, seasoned, and aggressive line officer corps.
There has been considerable discussion in the Navy in recent years about the shortcomings, fancied and factual, among our younger officers. But there is apparently little realization of the fact that our Navy of the middle 1950’s offers more opportunity to have younger officers soak up experience than was possible in the 1920’s or 1930’s. Prior to World War II the smallest command available in mentionable quantities was the destroyer. Now, with the destroyer out of the “small ship” classification, there has grown up a new family of ships which are largely commanded by lieutenants and below. These are minecraft, patrol craft, the various landing ships and small amphibious unit commands, and service force types. In the Pacific Fleet alone these number approximately 200.
How fortunate we are in having these small commands available as a place to start giving command experience is shown by the actions of a Navy that is not so fortunate in having commands available—either small or otherwise. The Royal Navy has recently taken the drastic step of dividing its general line officers into the “wets” and the “drys.” This is one way of insuring that senior seagoing officers have adequate shipboard experience, but we can be grateful that the situation which brought it about does not exist in our Navy.1
It should be unnecessary to sell a young general service officer on the advantages of obtaining a command at sea as soon as he reasonably can. If he is worth his salt, he is in the general line because he aspires to command a ship. The many specialities and the several corps have attractions and advantages which the general line does not have, and they perform functions necessary to keep our ships at sea. But their officers cannot command at sea. So the young line officer must fish or cut bait.
Before passing on to the advantages which accrue to the Navy, it is worthwhile to dwell upon the benefit which a young officer reaps from a command. First and foremost, he becomes a seaman. Next, since he is completely on his own, his sense of responsibility matures. From his lofty perch as captain of a commissioned ship in the Navy he will find out what drives a ship to windward, and what the Navy expects from its commanding officers. As a consequence, when he joins a larger ship and no longer is the skipper, he will be able to pull far more than his own weight.
The Air Force has a saying, “Every man a Tiger!” This is an effort to ingrain the idea that accomplishment of the mission is of far more consequence than worrying about failure. Expressed another way, “Don’t pussy-foot around trying to cover up your own inadequacies.” In the Navy we are heir to what Secretary Thomas described in his graduation address to the 1955 Naval War College class as “the Spirit of the Offensive.” The “offensive spirit” and the “tiger” concept differ only in wording.
Our problem resolves itself into finding the best attitude which the Navy can assume that will do the most in fostering an aggressive or offensive spirit in the young— or better, in any—commanding officer. As a background for this discussion it might be well to quote Winston Churchill’s minute to the First Sea Lord of September, 1939:
“A lot of our destroyers and small craft are bumping into one another under the present hard conditions of service. We must be very careful not to damp the ardour of officers in the flotillas by making heavy weather of occasional accidents. They should be encouraged to use their ships with war-time freedom, and should feel that they will not be considered guilty of unprofessional conduct, if they have done their best, and something or other happens. I am sure this is already the spirit and your view, but am anxious it should be further inculcated by the Admiralty. There should be no general rule obliging a court martial in every case of damage. The Board should use their power to dispense with this, so long as no negligence or crass stupidity is shown. Errors toward the enemy (i.e. to fight) should be most leniently viewed even if the consequences are not pleasant.”
Since this is not wartime, let us add some advice to the new commanding officer contained in a seamanship book that probably only the old seadog will remember:
“Remember that risks which are inevitable in war are criminal in peace manoeuvers. Nevertheless, do not totally suppress your criminal instincts, or you will learn nothing. . . ,”2
A far-sighted attitude on the part of the service towards the skipper and his command will result in the Navy’s capitalizing on its fine opportunity to develop an offensive spirit in its young skippers. In short, the service must discriminate between the “crass stupidity” to which Churchill refers and incidents which, although accompanied by unfortunate temporary results, occur despite reasonably decent judgment on the part of the commanding officer. A minor sin frequently has more instruction value to those concerned than its cost to the Navy either in the inconvenience of having a ship tied up or in the investment necessary to repair crumpled plates. A lack of discrimination on the part of the service will result in the breeding of a generation of old maids upon whom the Navy will later be forced to rely for command.
There should be just as much or more interest in recognizing an outstanding performance as there is in censuring a poor one. It might be of interest, for example, if the type commanders kept a tally as to how many letters of commendation were awarded as the result of operational excellence as opposed to letters of condemnation originated for operational failure. Adopting the practice of permitting the captain and the navigator to split the pilot’s fee whenever the services of the local pilot’s association were available but not used would be one concrete way to reward proficiency as well as to stimulate professional interest. San Francisco Bay and Shimonoseki Strait are two places where the skipper would really earn his pilot’s keep.
It has been one of this author’s theories that if an officer is in the boat-driving business long enough, someday and somehow, inevitably, his engines will fail to back or he will back too slowly, he will drop his anchor too late, or perhaps his bottom will nudge the sand of a nearby beach in a friendly sort of fashion. Mahan, incidentally, grounded a ship three times. Although some unfortunate people are accident prone, sooner or later even the best driver dents a fender or backs into a telephone pole. If this happens aboard ship, need the skipper start reading the “help wanted” ads in the local newspaper? In line with my inevitable theory, some years ago when I had an LST, I bought a Snipe sailboat which somehow grounded frequently during afternoon sails. In this way I succeeded in getting my quota with the Snipe rather than the LST in which the United States government took considerably more interest.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss clinically which classes of accidents shall result in the relieving of the skipper, which shall result in letters of censure, which shall be written off, and which few might reasonably be occasion for a pat on the back. We all agree that we cannot tolerate “crass stupidity” and that if an officer sets things up so that, as a result of his own negligence, a crash, crunch, or scraping is a mathematical certainty, he gets the ax.
Other accidents are not so easy to decide. For example, if a landing ship broaches during beaching exercises under adverse conditions she will probably receive damage. If a destroyer has to get underway or come alongside in restricted waters with a strong wind blowing, there may be need for more than a shipfitter. Dual-ship ASW attacks and hunter-killer exercises, if aggressively conducted, can be dangerous. In these instances, however, the experience acquired may easily have been worth the cost. Stated differently, you can’t expect a garage mechanic to learn his trade without getting his hands dirty. Just as the skipper can turn out experienced O.O.D.’s only by giving them the conn, so has the Navy no alternative but to give the skipper a little slack in his commission pennant halyard unless we wish to have him become a reluctant dragon. After all, we are trying to develop aggressive young captains who can get underway in a fog, who can make a buoy in a stiff breeze, or who can replenish underway in heavy weather— for a good reason.
Entrusting a ship to a young officer—even though it is a small one—is serious business. The question of who is ready for a command and who is not is bound to be difficult. And the unfortunate soul who must wrestle daily with that one is the detail officer. But examining the question from a distance it looks as though the main factors to be considered in assigning an officer a junior command are two in number. The first, “Is he competent and deserving of command?” and the second, “Are we training him for higher responsibility?” If the answer to both these questions is “yes!” then very few mistakes will be made in detailing, and in the future there will be progressively fewer and fewer large commands assigned officers who do not have at least one previous command under their belts. With good selection for small commands and with a healthy servicewide atmosphere, we will be making the most of our opportunity to develop “the offensive spirit” in commanding officers. The old wives’ tale about early commands bringing early courts martial should soon be forgotten.
For the purpose of this article, destroyers grew out of the small ship category when the number of stacks diminished from four to two. But consider how a previous small command plus experience in type will qualify an officer to take over a destroyer, particularly when graduates of a DE or APD command are added to the pool of available exskippers. It should rarely be necessary to assign a destroyer as a first command, and, failing that, it should be even more rare to give a destroyer to an officer with no experience in type. One bonus effect of this policy would be that fewer wives—upon whom the Navy depends for encouragement—would be kept waiting on the dock for an extra hour on Friday night just because skipper, though not a chowder-head, didn’t know which engine to use and consequently held up the rest of the division in making the nest.
During its existence our Navy has achieved an enviable record. We have developed some exceptionally fine leaders. Decisions which they have had to make have not been the easiest. Deciding to risk the danger of torpedoes at Nobile Bay called for fortitude of the highest type. More recently operations on the picket stations at Okinawa or running the Slot called for courage and professional skill. The decisions which the minecraft skippers had to make at Wonsan, when they were sweeping daily in the face of shore battery fire, were hard. With all the small commands now available our opportunities for developing aggressive leadership are better than ever. Let us make the most of it, and develop a new generation of skippers endowed with experience, skill, and guts.
1. “Splitting the List in the Royal Navy,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September, 1955.
2. Whispers From the Fleet, Capt. C. Cradock, R.N. (1908).