Sailors “spin yarns” or tell “sea stories” which may contain marginal truth. They differ from landlubber fairy tales in that whereas a fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time,” the sea story begins with an assertion of truthfulness, “This is no s…”
My career of over 39 years has left me with no shortage of sea stories, all of which, as stated in the definition above, begin with (or at least contain) an assertion of truthfulness.
I think one worth sharing with you is the story of when I first “counseled” one of the enlisted men in my division in my very first ship, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65). This yarn is not a “sea story” in the classic sense in that it isn’t rooted in an event that involved way too much liquor in a far-away liberty port, but it IS true and it came from a very important period in my career, a time that, I realize now, set the stage for everything that followed.
Let me set the scene for you…, I was 23 years old, just out of the Naval Academy and my year of nuclear propulsion training. I was assigned to the Big E in the Reactor department where we were responsible for the care and feeding of the ship’s eight nuclear reactors. Our job was to make steam, pure and simple – steam to drive our main engines, steam to make electricity, steam to send to the catapults to launch aircraft, steam to cook the food and steam to do the laundry. In Reactor department, it was all about making steam and making lots of it, 24/7 while underway.
And we were underway a lot. The Big E was the Queen of the Pacific Fleet, always where the action was and always sailing fast. I joined the ship in July, 1974 and we deployed that fall. I quickly qualified to supervise the propulsion plant and was immediately assigned to lead Reactor-4 Division, a unit of about 65-75 Sailors of varying technical specialties who operated and maintained the 2 nuclear reactors in the #4 propulsion plant. It was a big job and I had a great deal to learn, a very great deal and not a lot of time. We were expected to get up to speed quickly and start contributing to mission accomplishment right away. And on the Big E, the pace was always fast.
Now one of the very magical things about the Navy is the process that has developed over time to teach junior officers how to be officers and how to lead Sailors. As you might expect, there’s a great deal to this “educational” process (most of which isn’t written down anywhere), but the most important part is the role played by the division’s senior enlisted Sailor, the division Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO). This senior Sailor can make or break the junior officer assigned to his care.
Well, on the Big E in 1974, a very difficult time in the Navy as you may recall, the good Lord truly smiled on me because my LCPO in Reactor-4 division was simply the finest enlisted man I’ve ever served or sailed with, bar none.
His name was Senior Chief Machinist Mate Robert D. Neil from Riverton, Wyoming. Riverton was a small mining town and Senior Chief Neil knew his only job opportunity following high school would be to work underground, deep underground, like his father and grandfather before him. Senior Chief Neil had never gotten very far from Riverton while he was growing up and had never seen the ocean, but he knew that joining the Navy would keep him out of the mines and get him out of Wyoming, so he signed up to learn a skill and see the world.
Senior Chief Neil spent ten years in destroyers before he entered the nuclear propulsion program; he had been around the Navy a long time and seen just about everything at least once. Although he only finished high school, it appeared to me that Senior Chief Neil had the equivalent of PhDs in human relations, life, the Navy and nuclear propulsion; he was unbelievably wise and totally dedicated to the Navy. I’ve never met another man like him, in or out of the Navy.
Fortunately for me, Senior Chief Neil took my education very seriously. He always started our conversations with, “Now that Naval Academy stuff is OK as far as it goes, but there’s a helluva lot more to this business than what you learned there. And don’t let your education get in the way of learning what you need to know …,” And off we’d go on yet another lesson on what he thought I needed to know.
One of the things I needed to learn, and learn fast, was how to counsel the enlisted men in my division. Now these Sailors were a very interesting group. Their ages generally ranged from the low 20s to the late 30s. Some, a very few, were in it for a career, but the vast majority had volunteered to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Two things they had in common were that they were all pretty intelligent – the nuclear power program standards saw to that – and they mostly hated the Navy. So it made for some very interesting leadership experiences when my enthusiasm for the Navy ran head-on into their individual and collective attitudes. As Senior Chief Neil used to say, “Mr Harvey, you’re dangerously enthusiastic for someone who is so goddamn naive.”
But as smart as many of my Sailors were, and as experienced as some of them were, they were all still human and certainly had their fair share of human problems, big and small, with the additional stress of extended deployments far from home that comes with Navy life. On most occasions when one of the Sailors needed to talk about a particular problem, Senior Chief Neil would listen, ask a few penetrating questions that got right to the heart of the issue and then guide the Sailor to reach the best solution that fit the circumstances. Senior Chief Neil rarely imposed a solution on a Sailor; he always wanted to make the Sailor think he had solved his own problem, or at least resolved it as best could be done given the circumstances. A big part of my education in “Navy 101” was watching Senior Chief Neil in these counseling sessions and then talking with him afterwards about what he said and why he said it. Those discussions were pure gold for me and provided invaluable lessons-learned I applied throughout my own Navy career.
Finally the big day came when Senior Chief felt I was ready to “solo” in counseling. This step was a big one for me in my development as a junior officer and in the statement it made to the division; Senior Chief Neil was sending a signal to my Sailors that he considered me ready, not just ready to counsel Sailors, but also ready to lead them.
Senior Chief had carefully selected the time during the deployment and the issue for me to handle – one of our Sailors had received a “Dear John” letter with a twist; not only was she leaving and getting a divorce, she was taking their little daughter, too.
Now, we were operating in the Indian Ocean and would be for several more weeks – that meant no mail, no communications with home (except emergency Red Cross messages) and no ability to leave the ship to try to get home and deal with the situation. In effect, there was absolutely nothing I could say or do that would have any real impact on this Sailor’s very real problem. The bottom-line, I couldn’t really solve anything; I knew that and the Sailor knew that. But what Senior Chief Neil also knew was that no matter what I said, I couldn’t make things worse. And that was the key factor as far as he was concerned – I’d get some “street cred” in the division for taking on a very tough problem of one of our good Sailors and there was no way for me to screw it up. Theoretically.
Before I sat down with the Sailor, Machinist Mate Second Class (MM2) Vernon Oyers from Oklahoma City, Senior Chief carefully reviewed all the facts with me and gave me what were, in effect, my redlines.
Senior Chief knew that MM2 Oyers was going to ask me to go to the head of the Reactor Department and request that MM2 Oyers be given permission to return home and try to reconcile with his wife and save the marriage. Our department head was a very tough, no-nonsense officer who would, of course, deny the request as there was no way to make it happen and the rationale was not, in the Navy’s eyes in 1975, compelling.
What Senior Chief Neil wanted to ensure was that I would also deny the request and so appear to my department head as a junior officer who had the guts to say “no” and wasn’t afraid to potentially be seen as the bad guy.
In his final guidance to me Senior Chief said, “Mr Harvey, there’s just no way to do this from the goddamn middle of the Indian goddamn Ocean. And no one, no one, expects you to say yes, not even MM2 Oyers – he just wants to see someone in authority care enough to listen to him. And that would be you. So just goddamn listen…, sir.”
The time for the meeting finally came and MM2 Oyers dutifully appeared at the small, battered government-issue gray desk near the back of the engine room that served as Senior Chief’s and my office. There was some privacy there due to the equipment arrangement and you could actually converse without shouting.
MM2 Oyers was a very solid Sailor; he did his job willingly, pitched in when extra effort was needed and was a very steady watch-stander. He was respected within the division as a shipmate you could depend on. He was also a very proud “Okie” who lived and died for Sooner football. He was the kind of Sailor every division needs – one of the guys who just gets it done.
We started talking; actually he started talking and I just listened. And I wasn’t ready at all for what I heard. I had expected a kind of rushed statement of the facts followed by an expression of the desire to go home and sort everything out and then a question concerning if there was anything I could do to help.
What I heard was the story of high-school sweethearts who grew up together in a very small town. I heard the story of how their love grew and how they eventually convinced the parents to give their blessings to the marriage. I heard the story of the drive across country after the marriage that served as a honeymoon and damned if I didn’t hear about the honeymoon, too. I heard about everything
I was stunned. I had rehearsed this meeting a hundred times in my mind, imagining every twist and turn the conversation could possibly take, but I hadn’t imagined this.
Petty Officer Oyers kept talking and I kept listening. But when he started talking about his daughter, he started crying. I was sitting there in a panic. After all, I had never even had a serious girl-friend and here was this Sailor asking me advice on how to save his marriage and keep his daughter. This wasn’t in the script! Finally I started tearing up myself and I said, “Oyers, give me the special request chit; I’ll approve it and see what I can do for you.” Tearfully MM2 Oyers gave me the chit and thanked me profusely for my help and support.
As Oyers left, Senior Chief Neil came in. He took one look at me and said, “You screwed this one up, didn’t you?” He stuck his hand out and asked for the chit. He glanced down to where I had signed it checking the “request approved” box, then glared at me and said, “I’m going lose this chit and get Oyers to re-do it. We’ll do this whole goddamn thing again and this time we’ll get it right. There’s no way you can take this to Cdr Read (our department head) – he’ll have your ass and you’ll look pretty f*&^ing stupid to boot.”
I stood up and took the chit back, “Senior Chief, it’s my division so it’ll have to be my ass.”
Senior Chief looked at me, smiled and only said, “Aye-aye, sir.”
How well do you know your ship?
How well do you know your gear?
How well do you know yourself?
On 11 May 1945 USS BUNKER HILL (CV17), one of the new ESSEX class fast carriers around which the post-Pearl Harbor Navy was built, was sailing as the flagship of VADM Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 during the Okinawa campaign.
The Marines and Army went ashore on Okinawa on 1 April 1945 in what became the most costly and bloodiest campaign in the Pacific War. It is the only battle in which more Navy Sailors died at sea than either the soldiers or Marines ashore. This very high number of casualties at sea was due primarily to the kamikazes, Japanese suicide planes, whose attacks on the fleet reached a crescendo during the Okinawa campaign.
Two kamikazes, each armed with a 500lb bomb, hit BUNKER HILL while she was preparing for flight operations on the morning of 11 May. The combination of bomb hits and crashes on the flight deck, filled with fully armed and fueled aircraft preparing for launch, was devastating. Structural damage to the ship was extensive and fires raged out of control on the flight deck, gallery deck, and in the hangar bay. Smoke and poisonous fumes spread rapidly through the ship. Damage control fittings were destroyed and fire fighting systems failed. The situation was truly desperate with the ship’s survival in doubt.
A critical design flaw in the ESSEX class – the ventilation intakes were located along the flight deck and fed the central air ducts to the engineering spaces – resulted in the BUNKER HILL’s fire rooms and engine rooms rapidly filling with smoke and deadly fumes. The normal 110F ambient temperature rapidly spiked to 145-150F. The air became poisonous and filled with soot; visibility in the fire rooms dropped to near zero.
FN George Thorne knew, as did all the Engineers, that if he abandoned his post in the forward fire room, the ship would lose power and any hope of saving her would be lost. The heat and foul air gradually overcame the rest of the watch in the forward fire room – they slowly asphyxiated. FN Thorne, unable to see his gauges and dials, placed his hands on his feed water and fuel oil pumps and sensed by the feel of the system – a combination of sound, vibration, and temperature – whether the pumps were operating properly. For over 10 hours, FN Thorne operated his fire room essentially alone and in the blind under steadily deteriorating conditions.
FN Thorne knew his ship’s survival depended upon him staying at this GQ station, even at the cost of his life. Because of his intimate knowledge of the ships boilers, feed water and fuel systems, he was able to maintain fires in BUNKER HILL’s forward boilers by himself and without lights. He knew his ship and he knew his gear.
How well do you know yours? Think about what it would take to do your job totally in the dark, under great stress and with your shipmates out of action. Think about the situation where your ship’s survival depends on you and your ability to maintain your watch in spite of the threat to your very survival.
On 11 May 1945, BUNKER HILL was filled with men like FN George Thorne. Despite grievous damage to the ship, the deaths of 393 shipmates and the wounding of almost 300 others, Thorn and his shipmates saved BUNKER HILL. They knew their ship, they knew their gear, and they were determined to fight, no matter what.
Cross posted from USFF Blog
I started this blog when I assumed command of US Fleet Forces Command because I wanted to get feedback from the deckplate on the current state of the fleet as well as different perspectives and ideas on particular topics. I have been very happy with the comments you have provided me and your feedback has really helped shape my thinking.
Now that I am approaching my six month mark in command, I would like to change the format of this blog in a manner which I hope will benefit us both – but particularly increase what you get out of the time you devote to reading and responding to my posts.
For the past six months, I have asked questions that can pretty much be mapped to one or more of my three primary concerns as Commander, USFF: to provide forces ready for tasking to our Combatant Commanders, to sustain those forces (including our people) so that we may fight today’s wars, tomorrow and get our ships, submarines, and aircraft to their expected service life, and to ensure our force deploys confident in their readiness to execute their missions through adhering to the tried and true standards that have benefited our Navy throughout our history.
Based on the picture of Fleet conditions I’ve developed over the past six months, I intend to transition away from predominately asking questions to letting you know my thoughts and informing you of the decisions I’ve made. The value of your comments will not diminish, quite the contrary, but hopefully this will give you a better opportunity to understand what is on my mind and the actions I am taking.
That said, one area I have significant concern with is the confusion between “taking risk” and lowering standards. As Navy made hard decisions over the past six years to meet growing Combatant Commander force demands, come off the manpower glideslope, and fund recapitalization after the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s; we began to use phrases such as “taking risk.” Taking risk was often used to describe the actions that must be taken to “do more, with less.” What really occurred in some instances was we did more, but we did it less well and we lowered our standards.
As we recapitalize the fleet, meet Combatant Commander demand, and properly invest in the sustainment of our ships, submarines, and aircraft, we cannot lower the tried and true standards which have served our Navy for over 230 years. Recent incidents – HARTFORD, JAMES E WILLIAMS, and flight discipline lapses – are just some examples that illuminate areas where we must re-educate, reinvigorate, and reinforce the bedrock importance of our tried and true standards that run the gamut from how we operate, to how we maintain, to our conduct, and the concept of accountability. As a Fleet Commander, fewer resources means that there are things we will do less, but that must not result in doing things less well. More to follow.
All the best, JCHjr.
Cross posted from U.S. Fleet Forces blog
Navy established Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) in January 2006 to lead and centrally manage our Expeditionary Forces. Just four years later, we have a large and diverse group of Sailors at the leading edge of the fight with the demand signal for these forces steadily increasing.
When we discuss Navy’s contributions to today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, NECC’s forces are – and will continue to be – at the center of that discussion. Our Sailors (Active and Reserve) have developed an extraordinary amount of experience and capability that we must continue to bring to bear to execute the missions our nation requires, today and in the future.
It is easy to create and manage a “single-purpose” warfare career field – like sub, surface, and air. My question to you: how do we best ensure that we institutionalize and take advantage of the extraordinary experience that we have gained in NECC over the past four years and will continue to need well into the future?
Cross posted from US Fleet Forces Command Blog
From this blog and others I have monitored, I have seen many comments discussing a variety of issues related to manning of our ships, squadrons, submarines and expeditionary units. I am very aware of the shortages we have in certain communities as well as distribution issues currently being addressed by the Chief of Naval Personnel. I think I have a very good understanding of the history associated with many of these issues, but much of what I’ve read hasn’t dealt with the baseline requirements established in the various afloat billet bases.
I would like to hear from you regarding the fundamental manpower requirements for your ship, squadron, or unit. What changes would you make to your Officer Distribution Control and Enlisted Data Verification Reports that would better enable you to execute your current operational requirements? Please include in your response the type of ship, squadron, or unit you are referring to so I can put your remarks in their proper context. I would also like to know the rationale for the proposed change. For the purposes of this thread, I am directing this question primarily to those currently in uniform and part of the USFF team.
One note for your consideration – as I have remarked on elsewhere, the resources the nation will be able to devote to the services in the future will not continue the pattern of the past eight years where service budgets and contingency funding steadily increased. Our overall operations tempo, with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq entering new phases, is likely to remain high. The challenges associated with recapitalizing the Fleet are daunting. Very tough choices lie ahead for us at every level in the chain-of-command.
Accordingly, simply asking for more people won’t work – what we must do is ensure the people we do have are serving where we most need them and that they receive the necessary training en route and on the job once they report aboard. That’s why I’d like to hear from you about the billet base for your unit. All the best, JCHjr
Cross posted from Fleet Forces Command Blog
For the past 60 years, our Navy has been the most technologically advanced, well-trained, and most complete and capable naval force in the world. Since the end of the Cold War, other nations have not been able to compete with us militarily or economically. But as Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changing.”
We are now in a time where a terrorist group like Hezbollah can not only acquire a cruise missile, but also train, launch and hit an Israeli Sa’ar 5 corvette – a capability once possessed by only a handful of militaries. This type of capability (once the purview of the nation-state, now within the reach of many non-state extremist and criminal organizations) requires us to take a hard look at all of our warfighting capabilities and how we man, train, and equip. It is no longer just about ensuring that we do not allow our traditional warfighting capabilities to atrophy – we must be able to deter and when necessary, fight and win against ALL those who seek to do us harm, including those that do not fight under a nation’s flag like terrorists, cyber-hackers, and pirates.
What are some of your ideas concerning how we ensure our warfighting capabilities like ASW / BMD / Strike, etc. keep pace with the threat, while we also ensure we are prepared to combat “irregular” threats like terrorism, cyber-hackers, and piracy? And how do we best accomplish all this during a time when the great pressure on our budgets will not allow us to just “buy our way” out of the problem?
Cross posted from US Fleet Forces Command Blog
- Assessing the Fleet: The 2014 Navy Retention Study
- Another Look: Michael Murphy and 9/11 ‘SEAL of Honor’
- Sea Control 49: General Robert Scales on Firepower
- Backlash Against Police Militarization: Implications for the U.S. Coast Guard?
- On Midrats 24 Aug 2014- Episode 242: “Lost Opportunities: WWI and the Birth of the Modern World”