It is a different world there, seven decks down, a world where the temperatures routinely soar over the 1300 mark, where a watchstander can trace his rounds in his own sweat on greasy deckplates. The fireroom and engineroom are the universe set aflame, a burlesque vision of fire and heat and noise and swift, dark machines that whine and turn and spin throughout the long at-sea periods. Many of the ships are more than 20 years old—merely replacing parts to some of the original equipment can require having to deal with defunct companies and retired technical representatives. The combined deficiency lists would take years to correct, if all the ship did was remain lashed to the pier with full shipyard support. The manning is wretchedly low, with watchstanders often on 6-on/6-off shift work, in a place where all the vitality and energy are drained from a man within the first hour in the space because of the heat and noise. Retention is low—with machinist's mates and boiler technicians (BTs) the most critical of ratings.
The enlisted men who work here face all this and worse. For a deployment, their liberty will probably expire a full 48 hours before the ship gets under way. For the week prior, they will be lit-off, standing their 6-on/6-off,or 8 and 16 if they are lucky, beaten down by the work load and the personnel qualification standards (PQs) and the planned maintenance system (PMS) and leak lists and lagging lists and the equipment deficiency lists and operating logs and all the rest. They are men who are expected to sweat their hours away in the "pit" on watch, then follow with a regular working day. Everything they do must be done professionally and expertly, for the operating logs do not lie, revealing as they do the missed soundings and the bad surface blows and every other mistake and miscue. It seems at times a load so heavy as to shut out totally the mythical light at the end of the tunnel.
Personnel retention here is so low, because the only light most of them can see is the one that illuminates a way out of the Navy. Most of the machinist's mates joined thinking they would work lathes and presses, not main engines, and the BTs enter the fold with even less understanding of what they will be doing. They remain usually forgotten and unnamed until the brightness of a Class Bravo Fire or the darkness of the load suddenly dropped brings them smartly into focus.
Someone has to lead them. And in every plant, on both coasts, there are some officers who can lead a snipe and others who cannot. For some engineer officers, the men in the holes are willing to work 16-, 18-, to 20-hour days, going port and starboard on duty days to prepare for an operational propulsion plant exam (OPPE).
Other engineers cannot light off a plant without a virtual strike. Certain ships, with good, snipe-capable officers, can make commitments, win "E"s, steam the plant, tour the VIPs, and all the rest. Others struggle to turn a shaft, draw a vacuum, or line up a low pressure drain tank. The key is snipe leadership, or the presence in the engineering department of what could be called snipe-capable officers.
There are several key attributes that the snipe-capable officer possesses. The first is some training in the technical areas. This does not necessarily mean he must be a mechanical engineer. The officer might have been an English or a psychology major—but he must at least have taken some math and engineering science, have some understanding of propulsion, and maybe even have an awareness of thermodynamics and electrical engineering. He should know what a spanner wrench and a tap and die set are, and perhaps even have used them at some time. He ought to have some idea of what a working man is capable of doing in what length of time. These are all attributes that come with the basic background training package. An officer who does not have any of these essential background items should not be ordered into a snipe-capable officer's billet.
The second key asset for the snipe-capable officer is that he be able to obtain the respect of his men. This does not mean he needs to be a macho, drinking, run-with-the-pack individual. But coupled with the technical knowledge there should be a tough, pragmatic approach to life. Being able to mix well with the enlisted men from a bantering, give-and-take conversational standpoint to being able to throw the football around with them at the division party all count in gaining respect. Snipes, generally, are physical, and the men they find easiest to respect and, thus follow, mirror these qualities.
Training in the plant to which he is detailed is a third background item that can make an officer more snipe-capable. The ability to walk into a plant and have a conversation about the locations of the equipment, their Outputs and parameters, and the idiosyncrasies of the plant is important. This coupled with the ability to ask any question without feeling or appearing stupid, but in a natural, curious way, can take an officer a long way into the ranks of the snipe-capable.
The leadership approach taken—that combination of charisma and dedication and style that makes it possible to ask men to do the hardest, dirtiest work on the ship—is just as important as the officer's background. The basic primer of snipe leadership is simply deckplate leadership. No engineer has ever had a department or steamed a plant from the log room. It is not possible. The engineer officer must exhibit a sure, steady presence in the spaces his people work. They must see him sweat next to them. He must have dirty hands and coveralls and a rag in his pocket. All the excellent hearing conservation programs will fall to nothing if the troops do not see the engineer officer and his officers in the spaces wearing their hearing protection and enforcing the program. Heat stress programs tend to lose all impact when administered from the air-conditioned cocoon of a log room or a central control. One pair of hands made greasy holding a recently pulled valve is worth a thousand memoranda to the main propulsion assistant (MPA) about maintenance actions.
Second, the engineer officer must establish a strict set of standards and enforce them. These are standards of professionalism and watchstanding that are general throughout the plant and in addition to the use of the engineering operational sequence system, instructions, standing orders, night orders, etc. What is required here is not a paperwork policy, but rather an attitude instilled in the people that says, "Damn it, we might be tired and dirty and hot and overworked, but we are still going to run this plant like a bunch of professionals." This is very easy to write, but getting such an attitude whistling through the plant along with the steam leaks is something else again. The way to develop the attitude is to play on what might be called the "Ivan Denisovitch/Oppressed Minority" quality of their existence in the plant. They work harder, longer, and in worse conditions than anyone else on the ship. Thus, they are in many ways an elite. If they can "hack the load" in an atmosphere with a mystique of elitism, and not be broken by the overall situation, then they are the best. They are proving to themselves the valuable lesson of their own strength and worth. This is the lesson that must be shown to them over and over. They are called upon frequently to divorce themselves from the home and totally dedicate themselves to the plant, especially before the major inspections. In these times, they can be appealed to on the elite basis of their situation. Let them know constantly that they do the hardest job, that it is recognized as such, and they will become the elite. They will respond as an elite group if given the identity and treated as such.
This goes hand-in-hand with the next key area of snipe leadership: recognition. A man will do surprising amounts of work based on the perception that he is "someone special" doing a tremendously difficult job—but he will not do it or continue to do it unless he knows someone is aware of the job and appreciates it. The types of recognition vary widely. Perhaps the best goes back to deckplate presence. When a young fireman can turn around in the bilges and reach for a wrench and find the engineer officer handing it to him asking how his job is going, legends begin to grow about that officer, and his plant will begin to work. If his only impact on the troops is an occasional well done in the night orders, he is missing the best opportunities to recognize his people. This recognition cannot come solely from the engineer officer or the other officers in the department, it must come consistently from the entire chain of command. When the BT-3, with a hard-won crow pinned on his dirty cap, can say to his detail of rube-punching firemen that they really busted to get the job done, then appreciation and recognition are really working in the plant.
The good engineer will also find ways to represent his people. As part of being aware of them and the degree of effort they put into their work, he must be ready to respond with maximum effort at his level on their behalf. He must help them in all areas including disbursing, dental, medical, civil authorities, and all the institutions of the real world that try to separate the snipes from the plant. The officer who shows up in court unasked in blues and ribbons to put in a word with the judge for one of his firemen who broke up a bar is well on the way to having his plant run well. Why? Because he is willing to put the same effort into the job at his level that he asks his firemen to do at theirs.
Awards and medals are other big items in the engineering department code of conduct for a better plant. The enlisted surface warfare expert (ESWE) pin is slanted toward the snipes, continuing the concept of "someone special." A regular program here, with officer-experts from the department available to sign off PQS and help the candidates with bridge and ere knowledge, is a big plus. Taking the junior petty officers, who are nearing completion of the PQS, up to the bridge and ere and letting them conn the ship are all effective measures. One of the best junior MPAs on a West Coast destroyer, when faced with the mid-watch as OOD, would make a point of letting his junior people come up for a turn at the helm, and occasionally letting them assume the conn for simple rums. Helping them for the ESWE and even recommending them for medals and letters of commendation (when appropriate, of course) are equally good. Too many OPPE commendations are given to chief engineers when the sweat of the firemen and third' class petty officers is overlooked.
The successful engineer officer will be able to make his people feel privileged. He makes them believe in themselves. And the simplest way to do that is to believe in them himself. As part of believing in them, he must be willing to accept some mistakes in watchstanders and allow them to move into positions of greater responsibility early. His reward is, ultimately, a more professional, better run plant.
When a man begins to feel that he is "someone special," doing a special, demanding job, he will respond, even in the most trying of situations. The key is to make him see himself as that individual. The effective engineer officer knows the most valuable asset in his plant: his snipe. And when he asks his people to go day after day and face the fire and the spark and the rusting pipes, he had better come ready to lead them through their own vision of themselves, from the deckplates of his own steaming world.