Last Friday night I was walking down the 4th corridor to my office in N81. It had been a long week. I was a little tired and looking forward to a cold beer when I got home… Then I heard a booming voice call out: “SHIPMATE… ARE YOU COMING TO MY CEREMONY NEXT FRIDAY???”
I turned around to see who it was and recognized a very familiar figure. I immediately regained the spring in my step as I returned to the end of the passageway to greet him. Kind of reminded me of a scene right out of Cold Case as LT j.g. Foggo pumped the hand of Quartermaster Second Class Ricky West and responded: “YOU BET I AM SHIPMATE!”
For a moment, I was back onboard my first boat, USS SEA DEVIL (SSN-664), standing watch as Officer of the Deck with my favorite Quartermaster, Rick West. We sailed that boat all over the Mediterranean and under the Polar Ice Cap on her subsequent Northern Run, climaxing in a dramatic surfacing evolution at the geographic North Pole! Now how cool is that? QM2 Rick West lived on the Conn of that ship. He was the best forceful backup in the Fleet to young LT j.g.s like me. West and the Navigator, LCDR John M. Bird were a great team and there was no obstacle they couldn’t overcome!
Our Commanding Officer, CDR Rich Mies, liked to go fast… after all, we used to call them “fast” attacks for a reason. He constantly challenged the Navigation Team on the Maneuvering Watch to keep them on their toes. Driving in and out of the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina, was a challenging Maneuvering Watch with a series of unforgiving hairpin turns—right full rudder… left full rudder—but the saving grace was lots of visual ranges ahead or astern. CDR Mies taught his Junior Officers to Conn the ship independently from the bridge. He wanted us to be more capable mariners so oftentimes, in good weather (no fog or reduced visibility) he would lower both periscopes and we would drive by the range. Just another exciting day on the Captain’s Bridge and my favorite place to be as Surfaced OOD.
Below decks, it was a different story for the Navigation Team. Without visual bearings, the team had to rely on dead reckoning off of the Ships Inertial Navigation System and electronic fixes from Omega and Loran-Charlie (neither very accurate in restricted waters). We had no Global Positioning System, electronic charts or non-penetrating periscopes (cameras) to assist the Navigation Party. This put considerable stress on the Navigator and his team. LCDR John Bird and QM2 Rick West were unflappable. On the bridge, we knew they had to be pulling their hair out in the control room but you would never know it from their voices. West on the 27MC: “Bridge, Quartermaster of the Watch, I have a good electronic fix, hold you on track, 200 yards to the turn, recommend SLOWING to all ahead two-thirds.”
As I looked up from my perch in the cockpit of the bridge for any direction, the typical response from the Captain was, “Steady as she goes Officer of the Deck!” As a young JO, I wondered why he made life so difficult for the Navigation Team but as I matured into the job and my role in the wardroom, I came to realize that the Captain was training all of us for that unexpected eventuality when Murphy’s Law overtakes even the best of ships and bad things happen. USS SEA DEVIL was no different than any other boat—Murphy appeared often—it was a dangerous business, but we were well trained and the Navigation Team overcame adversity with relative ease.
When we transitioned to our Northern Deployment, QM2 Rick West was a key member of the team. Operating USS SEA DEVIL under ice with her state of the art navigation system, i.e. SINS, Loran, Omega, Mk19 and Mk27 gyros was challenging to say the least. We were at least two generations ahead of USS NAUTILUS in our navigation suite, but let’s face it, the Mk27 gyro was originally used on Army battle tanks and had a tendency to tumble as did the Mk19. Loran and Omega were useless north of 66 degrees of latitude which put SINS in the forefront of our way to and from the North Pole. When we transitioned from the Marginal Ice Zone to solid Pack Ice overhead, the Quartermaster of the Watch was even more critical to safety of ship. During this time period, Rick West was almost always “on watch” even when he wasn’t—if you know what I mean—because he cared so much about the ship and the welfare of the crew. Forceful backup was critical and you wanted Rick West on the Navigation Plot. With the aid of our onboard Electronics Techs, West monitored and nursed the navigation suite through the entire deployment. Driving SEA DEVIL around ice keels and finding polynyas (open areas in the ice) to come up for air and a periodic fix was an incredible proving ground for the submerged OOD. Frankly, I loved it. Finding and surfacing the boat at the geographic North Pole for a day of “Polar Liberty” was something that the crew will never forget. West helped get us there… and back.
I could write many more paragraphs about sea stories from the mighty SEA DEVIL, but suffice it to say that it was a great boat and made even better with Sailors like Rick West. An exceptional watchstander, it was not sufficient for him to sit back and just be the QMOW. He sought out additional collateral duties and qualified in more senior watchstations. Proud of his uniform and his appearance, he set the example for other sailors in the crew’s mess. He was a man of principle then, as he is as MCPON now. He was the epitome of the mantra: Ship, Shipmate, Self… and in that order! Always the gentleman, his conduct at work or on the beach was beyond reproach. His word was his bond and his work was precise. When Rick West made a report, you didn’t have to worry about its authenticity or accuracy. During times of high stress, even with no sleep and no endpoint in sight, his positive attitude never wavered. I was therefore not at all surprised when he was selected to be the 12th Master Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy.
Master Chief West schooled many more officers than me in the art of navigation and the role of the United States Navy Sailor. On USS SEA DEVIL alone this list included Admiral Rich Mies, USN (ret), Royal Navy Exchange Officer Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope (current First Sea Lord of the United Kingdom), VADM John M. Bird, USN (ret), VADM Bill French, USN as well as countless others who rose to leadership positions Master Chief Petty Officers or Chiefs of the Boat. The mark that he left on us and our boat was indelible.
Today, MCPON Rick West will retire and shift the mantle of enlisted leadership to Master Chief Petty Officer (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens. To the MCPON, I say simply thank you for your service and the sacrifice of your family. It is now time to take that last fix, lay down a DR and set a course for new horizons. No matter where the prevailing winds take you, we know you will find success and that you can take great pride in the impact you have made upon generations of Sailors in the United States Navy. So one more time for MCPON West… HOOYAH Navy!