The Sailors of the United States Navy are some of the most clever, quick-witted individuals I have ever seen. I’m sure the young men and women who enlist in the Sea Service are not unique in this quality — after all, each branch of the military pulls from the same pool of potential enlistees — but I can only speak for Bluejackets.
I’m reminded of a situation while serving as the Assistant Supply Officer of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), the first of a new class of guided-missile destroyers named for a hero of the Pacific Theater in World War II and the only man to serve three terms as Chief of Naval Operations.
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Shortly after a Navy star-studded commissioning ceremony held on the Fourth of July in Norfolk, Virginia — the ship’s frail but clear-headed namesake and then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were the guest speakers — Arleigh Burke headed south for combat systems and engineering testing in the waters of the Caribbean.
But our first stop was Port Everglades, Florida, located a short distance to the southeast of Fort Lauderdale. We were to load some test gear and technicians at Port Everglades, but more important to the crew of 350 it was also to be a liberty port — a brief respite from the jam-packed pre-commissioning schedule that went hand-in-hand with the first ship of a new class of combatant.
The ship’s Commanding Officer (CO) — destined to wear the stars of an Admiral in the future — had the policy that the crew would be treated as responsible young men (the assignment to women to Burke-class ships was some years away) unless they gave reason not to. As the ship’s disciplinarian, the Executive Officer (XO) echoed the CO’s policy in public, but in private it was made clear to the Burke’s officers that a zero-tolerance policy was in effect: no incidents ashore, no one late in returning and no Sailor incapable of standing a watch the following day.
Things went perfectly for the first couple days of the port visit, everyone on their best behavior ashore and ready to work the following day. During Officers Call the morning before the day the ship was to get underway, the XO said liberty would expire at midnight and he repeated that any Sailor causing trouble or late in returning to the ship would be made an example of.
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When the Sea and Anchor Detail was called away early the next morning, I headed up to my post as Officer of the Deck (Inport) on the quarterdeck, relieving the individual standing that watch so that he could report to his Sea and Anchor position.
A ship’s quarterdeck is the point where the brow, or access way, from shore is. On the Burke the quarterdeck was generally amidships — as it was on this day — but occasionally we set it up aft on the flight deck.
My duty was to oversee the final comings and goings of people and equipment, making sure everyone and thing was onboard or ashore as required. The last step in the process of getting the ship underway was to pull the brow — disconnecting our access to the pier — so I had assigned to me from deck department a second-class Boatswain’s Mate and two seaman in addition to a Petty Officer and Messenger of the Watch from my own Supply Department.
Because our visit to Port Everglades entailed many official calls and visits from city, state and local Navy League officials, a ceremonial quarterdeck was set up on the pier to create a striking first impression on visitors. As the first of a new class of ship, one that cost more than a billion dollars to build and was considered by some to be the future of the surface fleet, the Burke was a showpiece as well as a warfighting machine.
The ceremonial quarterdeck at the foot of the brow include several large wooden photo boards on tripods, a lectern that served as a security checkpoint and a large rectangular rubber mat with the ship’s crest woven into the pattern. One end of the mat was placed tight against the stairway leading up to the access brow, and there were two parallel lengths of velvet rope held up by six heavy stainless steel stanchions shaped like missiles on the long sides of the mat.
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The morning was already warm and — worried as all green junior officers are about making sure each item on my Pre-Underway Checklist was completed — I sweated freely in my Summer White uniform. I was wiping my brow when the XO stopped by to check on my progress. After giving me a disapproving look for being hatless — even temporarily — on the quarterdeck, The XO let me know a petty officer from Deck Division had been reported missing at the morning muster.
“When he comes aboard, if he comes aboard before we get underway, I want you to grab his ID card, call the Chief Master-at-Arms and have him taken into custody. Do you understand?” The XO spoke loudly enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear, and looking past his shoulder I noticed my second-class Boatswain’s Mate wince.
“Yes, sir. I’ve got it.”
Last minute visitors came and went, engineering personnel briefly left the ship to disconnect electrical, water and sewage lines, and a crane arrived to lift the brow off the ship. All the while the walkie-talkie I held crackled as various stations around the ship checked in with the bridge and each other.
About a half hour before our scheduled underway time, I used the hand-held radio to request permission to strike down the ceremonial quarterdeck ashore. The request was granted and shortly after that a working party of about a dozen Sailors came aft from the fo’c’sle and reported to my BM2, who promptly led them across the brow.
The working party quickly rolled up the mat and velvet road, and pulled apart the photo boards. Working in twos or singly, the men began to bring the items back across the brow to the ship, disappearing with it forward where the material was placed into a storeroom.
Constantly checking my watch while keeping an ear tuned to the radio and trying to wipe the sweat off my face without taking my hat off, I watched the procession of men carrying missile-shaped stanchions and the rolled up mat with only passing interest.
Then I noticed the two-man team of Sailors carrying one of the large photo boards up the stairway and then across the brow. Both were on the opposite side of the board from me, so all I could see were their hands and legs from the knees down: the lead Sailor’s blue dungaree pants making a striking contrast to the naked legs and sneakers of the second one.
As I watched the pair reached the ship and they executed a wide pivot that would send them around me in such a way that I would still be blocked from seeing who they were. Still on the pier, I could see the BM2 in charge of the working party was watching me intently.
“Hold up, wait a second,” I called out, and could almost see the photo board sink an inch as the Sailors behind it realized they’d been caught. Moving to the back of the board, I peered around at the Boatswain’s Mate petty officer the XO was looking for, the only man during our port visit to be late returning to the ship.
He was wearing a torn t-shirt and shorts and as our eyes locked he began telling me a tale about a girl he met in a bar the night before, and her boyfriend who he met that morning. After escaping from the boyfriend the petty officer discovered he had no money left for a cab — either the girl or the bar tab took it — so he walked, ran and hitched rides to get back to the ship. Seeing the working party he simply blended in, hoping to get back on the ship unseen.
I laughed — couldn’t help it — and without thinking about what kind of trouble I was getting myself into, I told him to get quickly shaved, into a uniform and up to his Sea and Anchor Detail post on the fo’c’sle.
I used one of the ship’s interiors phones to call the First Lieutenant, his Division Officer and one of my best friends on ship. Together we hatched a plan that the First Lieutenant would report to the XO that his morning muster report was incorrect and the errant petty officer had actually been onboard all along.
* * * *
The XO was understandably livid, and he made no secret of the fact that he suspected two junior officers were trying to pull something over on him. But the deed was done at that point, and there was no going back. I found out later from one of my division chiefs that the Deck Division leading Chief Petty Officer made sure the errant man was given extra work details and watches in the way of discipline.
For my part, the audacity and cleverness of the miscreant was worth acknowledging, although some days I wonder if that alone is enough cause to help him instead of doing the job as set out by the XO.
That wasn’t the first time that particular Sailor needed my help in a sticky situation, either, but that’s another sea story.