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One of the most important responsibilities of military leaders is choosing the best-qualified officers to be their successors. In doing this, military leaders—especially selection board members—must be careful to assess accurately the potential of subordinates who fail.1
In November 1907, 22-year-old Ensign Chester W. Nimitz was placed in command of the four-stack torpedo boat destroyer USS Decatur (TBD-5). Smaller than a modern destroyer, the 420-ton Decatur was 250 feet overall and drew 6 feet, 6 inches. She was fast for her time, with a top speed of 28 knots, and armed with two 3-inch rapid-fire guns, five 6-pound rapid-fire guns, and two 18-inch Whitehead torpedo tubes. Her complement listed 3 officers and 69 men.
Although a “mere” ensign, Nimitz was no novice. He graduated from the Naval Academy in January 1905, ranked 7th out of a class of 114. Like all graduates at that time, before being commissioned as an ensign, he was required to serve two years as a noncommissioned “passed midshipman.” Nimitz spent one of these on board the battleship Ohio. His commanding officer wrote, “During the short time Midshipman Nimitz has been aboard, his services have been satisfactory." His second report improved, calling him “an excellent officer” and requesting very favorable consideration for commissioning. In September 1906, Nimitz transferred to the cruiser Baltimore. After his commissioning as an ensign, in January 1907, he began a successful one-year tour in command of the 92-foot U.S. gunboat Panay.
On 7 July 1908—eight months after assuming command of the Decatur— Nimitz left Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, headed south for Batangas Harbor. The trip was uneventful until the end. It became dark, the harbor was close, and Ensign Nimitz became careless. He visually estimated his position and track in
stead of taking bearings. He sent a seaman forward to take soundings, but no voice came from the bow. Nimitz also failed to check the state of the tide. At 2115, he hauled in the patent log and had only the engine revolutions to estimate his speed. A red light was visible a few miles off, but it could have been either Batangas Light or Bauan Light. Nimitz couldn’t know. He had failed to lay down arcs of visibility on the chart for either light. At 2125, while still doubtful of his exact position, Ensign Nimitz failed to reduce speed; at 2133, he changed course to 066 degrees, but failed to take bearings on the fixed red light still in sight. At 2152, the Decatur gently ran aground on a mudbank about one and a half miles from the Batangas Light.
All efforts to free the ship were unsuccessful; Nimitz and his crew spent the night aground. Early the next morning, a passing steamboat pulled them off. A board of inspection later would find that the Decatur had sustained no damage.
Ensign Nimitz might have tried to conceal the grounding. Instead, he made appropriate log entries and submitted a full report. He was relieved of command and transferred to the USS Denver (C-14), to await general court-martial.
er! ffec «rre,
day general courts-martial, there was no "'as military judge and the senior member fatm ruled on all evidentiary and procedural ^adt questions. ffarii
Lieutenant Earle presented a solid case- ^an, Using Nimitz’s own incriminating log en- ^urir tries, official documents, and testimony jj C of Decatur personnel, Earle proved sub- Jfae stantial portions of the specification. The ''He court-martial would find that Nimitz: p0'
► Hauled in his patent log, having no °att
further measurement of distance run fac
► Failed to reduce speed or cause sound- ^ tl
ings to be taken H
► Estimated the position of the Batangas par
Ensign Nimitz was charged with “culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty.” The charge contained one specification containing nine deviations from correct seamanship. Military justice at that time required no formal pretrial hearing before referral of the charges. The case was called to order on board the USS Denver on 28 July 1907—just three weeks after the grounding.
Ensign Nimitz pled not guilty to the charge and made no answer to the specification. Lieutenant Ralph Earle, U.S. Navy, acted as Judge Advocate for the four commanders, two lieutenant commanders, and one lieutenant who comprised the court-martial. Unlike present
>• Failed to take bearings on a fixed red ^>ar light
> Failed to lay down arcs of visibility 11 f h for Batangas and Bauan Lights as a guide faci As a result, the Decatur ran aground and fal, was stranded. jptc
Defense counsel challenged few of the fad facts alleged in the specification. Their c°si case was primarily a public-policy de- pea fense—a defense which did not deny the facts proven by the prosecution, but which still could have resulted in acquit- j tal. Conviction of Ensign Nimitz, the de- f fense argued, would be unfair and un- wise: unfair, because four other recent fal Navy ship groundings resulted in neither fasi board of inquiry nor court-martial and be- teni cause Pacific Fleet training of newly com- missioned officers was inadequate; un- Cer wise, because torpedo boats were made taU for hazardous service and night cruising pp and their skippers must not be discour- fae aged from taking risks. 'fa
Ensign Nimitz was found guilty in a 1 lesser degree than charged: neglect of pt duty. He was sentenced to be publicly reprimanded by Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, in Philippine waters. That Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral J. N. Hemphill, signed his order promulgating the results of the court-martial and approving the findings and sentence.
But there would be no further reprimand.
The order concluded: "The promulgation of these findings and sentence will be re-
Proceedings / June 1994
When Ensign Chester W. Nimitz (left, with the crew of the Decatur) ran his ship aground in 1908, it could have meant the end of his naval career. But court-martial members and later selection boards recognized his potential and a brilliant naval leader and fleet admiral (below, returning triumphant to Washington after World War II) was saved.
made a name for himself in submarines. He later brilliantly commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet en. during World War II and served ^ny,as Chief of Naval Operations.
I,. Fleet Admiral Nimitz became one of the finest naval leaders our country has known. His genius in the days before the Battle of Midway led to victory in that rucial battle and to the ultimate defeat 'f the Japanese.
His potential seems obvious now. Yet, 'early 35 years before the attack on Pearl •arbor, court-martial members, selection red Vrd officers, and officers at the Bureau j°f Navigation—forerunner to the Bureau
Military officers hate failure. A businessman's failure may lose money, but a Military leader’s failure could result in destruction and death. Because of the po- lentially high cost of military failure, I’bose charged with promoting our offi- Cers search for evidence of failure as Cause for quick rejection. After all, why— ^Pecially in a drawdown—should we ^ep the failures when we can populate °ur senior officer ranks with successes?
But that rationale, which would have Ensign Nimitz on the cutting room d(>or, ignores the much larger benefits of ^operly balancing an officer’s potential gainst his failure:
The Navy keeps officers who have ^arned from their mistakes.
Officers will be more likely to try new j^as and methods.
The Navy keeps its best warriors.
Officers are encouraged to be forth- ^Sht and honest.
Officers can learn from their mistakes. With the high cost of failure in the military, mistakes are clearer, and their effect on learning is proportionally greater. There is nothing like a solid blow to a boxer’s head to teach him not to lead with his right. A failure in the military can be equally stunning. Retaining an officer who has learned from his mistake and will not repeat it is the first benefit of properly balancing failure with potential.
There is a story of an executive whose error cost his company $10 million. Called to the president’s office, the executive—certain he would be fired— typed and signed a brief letter of resignation. Before the president could begin, he handed over the letter. The president glanced over the letter and handed it back explaining, “The lesson you learned cost me $10 million, but I know you won’t make that mistake again. If you think I will let you go now, you’re wrong.”
The second benefit is an increase in innovative methods and ideas. Under the present system, officers who see the handwriting on the selection board wall modify their conduct to avoid actions that have any risk of failure. Imagine a skiing school where every novice who fell was expelled. The class soon would be small, and those who remained would not chance much skiing. The smaller Navy of the future must consider and try many new ideas to improve, and there are bound to be some failures. As an old Galveston Bay salt earnestly declared to discouraged recreational sailors, “If you ain’t never run aground, you ain’t never been nowhere.” Allowing promotion for those who risk (and occasionally experience) failure encourages innovation in those officers and others who admire them.
garded as constituting in itself a public reprimand as required by the sentence of the court.”
The detachment and general court-martial had no noticeable effect on Nimitz’s career. Transferred back to the East Coast, he ^pas promoted to lieutenant 18 months after the grounding and
°f Naval Personnel—made the critical
jde Hecision that Ensign Nimitz had poten- ,nd rla*’ despite his running the Decatur '•"round. If the lieutenant selection board [Pic bad failed to select Ensign Nimitz, the eifCost t0 our nation would have been je- ^calculable.
)Llt Glancing Failure and Potential lit'
Je- in- ;nt tef ae- in- in- de ng it-
The third benefit of allowing failure when there is outstanding potential is that we keep our best warriors as leaders. Aggressive warriors take calculated risks. Those who take risks eventually will fail, for the nature of risk demands the possibility of failure. Under our current mind set, the aggressive warrior would not select for promotion and would be separated. Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, Jr., provides a historical example:
The third thing submariners remember from World War II is that between the world wars we had effectively selected the warriors out of command. We had inadvertently emphasized risk avoidance instead of risk evaluation. We had emphasized survival rather than success. We had graded people by the results of in-port inspections rather than by performance at sea. When the Second World War started, our commanding officers were not very effective. Essentially, the admirals had to order in a second generation of submarine commanding officers before the submarines started to rack up the impressive kill list that is the best-remembered submarine legacy from World War II.2
A fourth benefit of fairly considering those who fail is the increased motivation for forthrightness and honesty. Under our current system, those who fail and are caught do not select for promotion.
A logical inference is that those who fail and are not caught promote equally with others. The issue then becomes not failure, but being caught.
Thus, our current system, with its intolerance for failure, invites concealing offenses and even lying. During the investigation into the 1991 Tailhook Convention, how many officers lied or refused to cooperate because they believed honesty would end their careers or those of their friends? At the Naval Academy, midshipmen are accused of cheating to avoid failure in a course and then lying and refusing to cooperate, again out of a
94 '’r0ccedin|>s / June 1994
fear that expulsion inevitably results from being caught in failure.
The emphasis on the Navy’s core values is a paradox for the officer who fails. His Navy identity may be bound up in core values such as honesty and forthrightness. But practicing those values could mean an early end to his career.
This does not mean failure should not have consequences. It may involve misconduct under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or merit inclusion in a fitness report. Officers—not just enlisted members—must be held accountable for their misconduct. In fact, it is another cost of our current system that commanding officers are tempted to and occasionally do fail to appropriately punish a subordinate leader’s conduct because punishment would become a matter of record, and they cannot rely on the selection board to properly weigh the failure against the officer’s potential.
Accurate Assessment of Potential
There are three interrelated requirements to ensure that failure is properly reported and measured against an officer’s potential.
First, selection board members must be open-minded about the failures of those officers brought before them and must be able to balance these failures against the officer’s potential. In the current system, an officer’s degree of potential is hidden because fitness reports look so much alike. A selection board— eager for any difference between records—is left to search out failure as that difference. This leads to the perception that board members automatically reject officers who fail, which leads to still less reporting of failure.
Second, the truth of an officer’s potential and any offsetting weaknesses must be reported to the selection board. In Ensign Nimitz’s day, all officers were graduated from the Naval Academy, 150 or so at a time. In this closed community, service reputation was known outside of written reports of fitness. This has not been true for decades. Selection boards today judge only on the written record before them. That is very difficult because the potential of today’s officer is masked by uniformly outstanding records. Often the most telling difference in fitness reports is not the potential of the officer involved, but the writing ability of the reporting senior. Under the current system, the fine distinctions that selection boards are asked to make may depend on the fitness report writer knowing which adjectives come closest to “perfect.” Inflation has rendered evaluating fitness reports to ouija board accuracy.
Every few years, a new fitness report
system is set up to encourage reporting seniors to clearly differentiate between their subordinates. But commanding officers still decline to grade accurately on their own. To do so—many believe— would alienate their subordinates and result in most of their officers failing to be promoted. Fitness report preparers must be held accountable by the system—and by their reporting seniors—to rate their subordinates fairly and accurately. The system should make a sharp turn back to truth, and the quicker the better.
The third requirement for the proper balance of failure is accurate reporting. Because officers have such nearly identical service records, there is a strong temptation to cover up a subordinate’s failure. The burning question for commanders and commanding officers today is whether to award a nonpunitive letter of caution. They believe—and not without reason—that with fitness reports at maximum, a selection board will seize on any failure of a candidate as grounds for rejection. Naval leaders today must be held accountable by their reporting superiors to tell the truth and make it a matter of record. Selection boards must be trusted to make the right decision.
Selection boards already excel in differentiating between close fitness reports. They have less practice in measuring failure. Here are five considerations that can assist in weighing a failure.
>• The Offense. Certainly the failure itself should be considered. How experienced was the officer? Was the failure the fault of the officer? If so, was it impulsive, careless, or intentional? Does it show a lack of moral character? What damage was caused by the failure? The failure also must be taken in its historical context. For example, grounding a present-day Navy ship—with its staff of trained officers, modem navigational aids, and charts—is a more serious failure than in Ensign Nimitz’s day.
► Forthrightness. Did the offender come forward and admit the offense or did it come to his leader’s attention from another source? Worse still, did the offender take steps to coverup the crime? Strong positive or negative character qualities can be shown by these choices. >• Attitude of the Officer. Does the officer understand his failure and is he or she unlikely to repeat it? Does the officer take responsibility for the underlying wrong attitudes and the resulting failure? If appropriate (e.g., alcoholism or debt problems), has the individual taken positive action to rehabilitate himself?
> Prior Record. The service record is a wealth of information on an individual and should be carefully studied by the decision maker. Certainly, Ensign Nimitz should have received credit for his strong
showing at the Naval Academy and hi successful command of the Panay.
► Investment in the Individual. Has th< Navy invested considerable money and ^ time in developing this officer? This I an overrated and poor reason by itself-- some Navy “assets” consider themselvb indispensable because of the large suff' of money spent on their Navy education but bad character in an intelligent, well- F trained individual is all the more dangerous. Yet despite this caution, investment in the individual—which ma; ai include the Navy’s investment in the fail U ure—generally increases potential for fu- t£
ture useful service. a
Admiral Nimitz understood that fail' 0 ure must be balanced against potential v After Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was relieved as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific t( (CinCPac), after being surprised at Pearl e Harbor, Nimitz replaced him. Investiga- 1 tions had begun, and the staff expected c at the least to be given orders to unde- a sirable billets. Yet Nimitz, recognizing c the potential of the officers present, gath- s ered them together and spoke to them- c He told them that if they were not com-1 1
petent, they would not have been assigned 1 to the staff of CinCPac. He wanted them1 t to stay but would handle any requests for c transfer on an individual basis. One of the most surprised by this announcement < was Lieutenant Commander (later Rear ' Admiral) Edwin T. Layton, the intelli- ' gence officer who had failed to foresee 1 and warn Kimmel of the Pearl Harbor at-1 1
tack. Layton stayed on Nimitz’s staff 1 throughout the war. His accurate predic- 1 tion of the Japanese attack at Midway 1 won the battle and turned the tide of 1 World War II in the Pacific.
A selection board recognized the potential of Ensign Chester Nimitz and a fleet admiral was saved. Admiral Nimitz recognized the potential of the CinCPac staff and the naval war in the Pacific was won. As the number of Navy officers continues to decline, military leaders must be careful to assess accurately the potential of subordinates who fail.
'Much of the source material for this essay is gathered from E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).
:RAdm. Dave Oliver, Jr., Lead On (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), p. 114.
The author appreciates the professional assistance of the Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center.
Lieutenant Edwards is Assistant Force Judge Advocate, Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He previously served as Staff Judge Advocate, Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek; Assistant Carrier Judge Advocate, USS Enterprise (CVN-65); and Trial Counsel and Legal Assistance Attorney, Naval Legal Service Office, Norfolk.
Proceedings / June 1994