Last week’s collision of the USS Fitzgerald near Yokosuka, Japan brought back a number of memories of Navy days. No, I was not involved in an unwanted crash at sea but it is undoubtedly the worst fate that can befall a captain of the line. The loss of seven sailors only exacerbated the sense of helplessness and failure for that poor chap. His career in the US Navy is over, plain and simple.
The will be boards of inquiry and perhaps a court martial of the guilty parties. This is not fun and games but serious business. Shipboard life can be tense or laid back given the surrounding areas and tactical situation but one must be always ready to take things from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds.
That destroyer probably had a crew’s compliment of 250 with 15 or so officers. They supervised everything from the propulsion systems to weaponry as well as the gear for detecting the enemy and taking appropriate action. All officers stand the “watch” except for the supply officer who is known as the “pork chop,” as one of his duties is keeping the mates well fed.
There are various watches throughout the ship from the engine room to combat information center to the bridge itself which is El Supremo in any given four hour period. There are six watches a day. The bridge is manned by an Officer of the Deck(OOD,) a Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD), a navigator, helmsman, lee helmsman and various lookouts. I go into this detail because it makes the tragedy above all the more maddening.
When I was aboard ship there were rudimentary devices by today’s standards that enabled one to know your position at any given moment. Today’s vessels must be chock a block with whiz bang devices that constantly spit out data in an almost instantaneous fashion. Somehow, some way, personnel dropped the ball in an extraordinary fashion. The waters they were in were extremely crowded shipping lanes. If you stared at your radar there were blips everywhere. Where were they going? What was their course and speed? Were they a danger?
On the Mid watch from 12:00 AM to 4:00 AM things can be quiet. At least 80% of the crew is sleeping soundly beneath you and in all actuality an officer who might be no more than 22 or 23 years of age is calling the shots. It is at the same time exciting but sobering to know that you are the man.
The Navy is steeped in tradition. There is a ceremony when the watch shifts on the fourth hour. If I came on duty, I arrived about 15 minutes before the appointed time. I ascertained the ship’s position and situation. All of the systems of the ship were reviewed in case there were items not quite up to snuff. You might have one of multiple radars off line for maintenance. A bilge pump might be acting up. All part of the picture.
When I felt I had the situation in hand I said “I am ready to relieve you” to the Officer of the Deck. He acknowledges and then I say, “I relieve you” and he replies, “I stand relieved”. That is a seminal moment both in lore and maritime law. I have authority only to be taken by the Captain or Executive Officer who at this time are sacked out below. I then announce, “This is Mr Kenny and I have the deck.” Various seamen report out loud and the reins are passed. Game on.
The whole nature of the collision depends on a number of factors that can be complex. The are international rules of the road that seem to have been violated. You pass port to port which is not what happened. But you are also beguiled by the fact you are supposed to maintain course and speed so that the opposing ship is not guessing what you are going to do. Then you have the meeting situation which is called, “in extremis” because you have to take rapid evasive maneuvers. Basically you give it hard right rudder and all ahead flank. If the other guy does the same you might avoid each other. Didn’t happen.
The last piece is the action of the OOD. If he has his wits about him, he has sensed the impending doom and has hit the intercom and announced. “Captain to the bridge” rather forcefully. The skipper would then take control and make his decision. That is why the buck stops there. No matter what is going on he is responsible. That’s what he gets paid for.
I bring all this up for two reasons. In this day and age I am amazed at how many chief execs of publicly held corporations are relieved for incompetence or impropriety and then receive the golden parachute. Market conditions or underlings so far down the chain are responsible and how was I to know? Mega millions are spent on their tenure and the same even if they go down in flames. Something doesn’t seem right.
The second is the nature of service to your country. Where else could a kid fresh out of college receive this type of training and responsibility? It was a combination that I will treasure forever. I truly feel badly for those that did not get this opportunity. For once in my life nobody cared who my daddy was or where I went to school. I could have been on a ship or a gun battery or in the cockpit of a supersonic jet. It teaches you a lot about yourself.
I was somewhat amused when I came back from Viet Nam after being Officer in Charge of a Swift Boat. I went to work on a trading desk and had to be trained on how to deal with customers. It was somewhat surreal to think a month or two before I was responsible 24/7 and now I had to just listen. Such is life but think about that when a current day vet comes looking for a job. He’s got a lot of living under his belt no matter how old he is.
Ted The Great.
The Captain’s stateroom is right below the bridge. He can be up on the bridge in seconds. The commander of the Fitzgerald was medevaced with a head injury as the container ship rammed right into his stateroom. There is a good chance the OOD had not called him to the bridge.
Times have changed. Back in 1970 I and my fellow officers received a sum total of $4,000 pay for being OINCs of river gunboats for a year. I think that even included combat pay. Oh yes,I forgot it was tax exempt. Today a Ltjg makes around $4,000 per month with over two years of service. Still not a lot. Most services have one officer per 5 enlisted except for the Marines where it is 1officer for 8 grunts.
In 2015 there were 235 shipping accidents which ranged from collisions to sinking to groundings. Around 20% were due to unexpected meetings on the high seas. The same amount were attributed to putting ships on the rocks or sandbars. That will also affect your career.
Today 1/2% of our population is in the Armed forces. In WWII that was 12% but that was 80% of the males between 18-25 years of age. In the Viet Nam War approximately 8% of the draft pool was conscripted. Today well over 90% of our population has no connection to anyone in the armed services.