Watchstanding is a common denominator for Sailors. Every ship has several watch sections — these days some have twice as many as the three or four I was used to — comprised of standard duty assignments: Officer of the Deck, Petty Officer of the Watch, Sounding and Security, Security Rover, Duty Engineer, Duty Master-at-Arms, etc.
Standing watch, or duty as we usually called it, isn’t exclusive to sea-going commands, either. Many of the same watch assignments are listed on shore commands’ watchbills as well; in part, I suppose, to provide continuity as well as reminding Sailors that they really should be at sea.
Although some billets or positions are exempt from standing watch — Commanding Officers, Executive Officers and Command Master Chiefs to name some obvious ones — at times even the highest-ranking Sailors stand duty. I’ve talked to a couple Admirals who were in a fairly exclusive duty section at the Pentagon.
I’ve got a few good duty stories, including the time I almost sent a ship to look for an airplane that had crashed into a mountain. That story would probably be forgotten by now if not for the fact that the Secretary of Commerce was on the airplane.
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From its headquarters in Naples, Italy, Commander, Task Force 63 — or CTF-63 as it was usually known — was tasked by Commander, Sixth Fleet (C6F) to oversee maritime logistics and maintenance for U.S. and allied units deployed to the Mediterranean Sea.
By a huge margin, CTF-63 was my favorite duty assignment in 20+ years of service in the Navy. I started out overseeing a division of material expeditors — moving by air and sea high priority parts and mail to ships and shore activities — before taking over the job of Assistant Logistics Scheduler.
I wrote — and re-wrote: the schedules were done in pencil for good reason in those days before software was available — the operational schedule for four to five logistics ships: oilers, food ship and ammunition ships. Our flotilla of supply ships supported thousands of Sailors and Marines on 10-15 ships in the Carrier Battle Group (CVG) and Marine Amphibious Group (MARG), as well as embassies and shore activities around the Med.
The part I liked best was the job was almost totally operational in nature — I moved my ships around the Med to support customer ships, often having to change plans as a result of schedule changes and real-world situations. There were very few billets like that in the Navy from a Supply Corps Officer like I was.
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At CTF-63, the officers and Chief Petty Officers stood watch as Staff Duty Officer (SDO). My scheduling job was six and sometimes seven days a week — I always went in at least one day on the weekend to read messages and tweak the schedule as needed — so standing duty three or four days a month on average wasn’t much of an added burden.
The CTF-63 duty day began first thing in the morning and ran until the next morning. Although many SDOs planned on using their duty day to catch up on projects or work ahead on others, for some reason I was always busy putting out fires during watches: sometimes with operational schedules but also dealing with issues from the maintenance department and moving spare parts.
One part of the CTF-63 flotilla neglected to this point was the Med diving and salvage ship. Used primarily for diving exercises with allied navies and former-Soviet bloc nations through the Partnership for Peace, this unit and its embarked dive unit also conducted salvage operations in the event of an aircraft or ship loss.
Although I did not write the schedule for this ship, I had a pretty good idea of what it could do. In an earlier incarnation of my Navy career I read the operational reports from ships and dive units assigned to the Challenger salvage after the space shuttle exploded on launch.
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When I got the call from the Sixth Fleet duty officer in early April 1996, everyone else had left for the day except for the Duty Radioman, who monitored and answered the staff’s main phone line. The radioman called my desk in the Logistics Department and patched him through.
With no pleasantries he asked me where the salvage ship was. Having arranged a delivery of milk to the ship yesterday upon arrival in a port in Sicily, I was able to answer without delay.
“Contact the ship and have them prepare to get underway at a moment’s notice. I know you have to call your Commodore to brief him, but call the ship first. I need to know as soon as possible how quickly they can be underway.”
At that he was gone. I had no idea what was going on — whether this was a real-deal situation or just another hair-on-fire exercise — but a minute later I was on the phone with the ship’s quarterdeck, and then another minute after that I had the commanding officer.
He was unhappy, to say the least, with crew “scattered hither and yon” throughout the port city they were located in. Probing for any leeway possible, the CO told me many of them had probably been drinking since getting off the ship that morning, and was all this really necessary? I said it was and directed him to execute an emergency recall of his crew and to prepare to be underway when directed. How long would that take? I don’t remember his response, but recall it was in the range of several hours.
Next up was a call to CTF-63 himself, the Commodore. Although a Captain in rank, that was his title as the superior to a task force of ships. The Commodore wasn’t home yet, so I left word for him to call the staff upon arrival.
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Things began to move every quickly at this point, as I called Sixth Fleet back and fed the ship’s information back to the duty officer. He wasn’t pleased by the answer, and pressed me to do everything possible to hurry them along. At this point curiosity got the better of me, and I asked what the hell was going on.
“Aren’t you watching CNN?” I responded we didn’t have a TV where I was located (the only two sets were in the Commodore’s office and the SDO bunk room, where we grabbed a few hours of sleep if possible). “A cabinet official’s plane may have gone done in the Adriatic.”
The radiomen came in to tell me I had two calls waiting, the ship and the Commodore, so I ended the call with Sixth Fleet and decided to go with the ship first. The CO wasted no time when I got on the line.
“The boys are coming back in now; a lot of them saw the reports on TVs in the bars and their hotels and knew to get back aboard.” He revised the underway time to one hour and said he was already plotting a course to the general location of the crash of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s plane as reported by CNN.
I put him on hold and switched over the Commodore, who also had CNN at his home and needed little briefing from me. He approved of all measures taken to that point, reminded me he had a cell phone that I should have called earlier, and told me to follow through with Sixth Fleet and keep him apprised.
Switching back to the salvage ship CO, I was informed the transit time from the western Sicilian port they were in to the reported crash site was three days — salvage ships don’t go very fast. I told him to continue making preparations to get underway and I’d be back in touch.
Another call to Sixth Fleet, updating the duty officer on the salvage ship’s reduced estimate to get underway and informing him of the length of transit based on TV reports. Obviously displeased with a two-day delay, he passed me a latitude and longitude and asked me to get a revised estimate based on that.
I checked my charts and saw the position was about equal distance from Italy and Croatia, smack in the middle of the Adriatic Sea. The salvage ship CO agreed with me, told me it would still be two days and finished by letting me know the depth of water at that location was too deep from his men and equipment.
“OK. I’ll pass that up. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll let you know,” was all I could say.
* * * *
As the hours went by, I continued to ping-pong between Sixth Fleet, the ship and the Commodore. As promised, a little more than an hour after my first call the ship was ready to go, but by then a strange thing was happening.
The last-known position of the plane began to move. Just a few miles at first: to the northeast toward Croatia. Even so, the water was still too deep and the transit time was still long. As the hours slipped by the position kept moving the same direction.
Finally the position left the waters of the Adriatic and moved ashore. The Sixth Fleet duty officer called to thank us for our prompt response, saying he would ensure the Admiral was aware of it as well, and the salvage ship was released to continue its port visit.
I passed along the information and the Admiral’s implied thanks to Commodore and CO, and everyone went back to what they were doing. Standing watches or enjoying a late drink in a Sicilian port.
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It was and it wasn’t an unusual duty day, if you know what I mean. I mean, every day could be the day when nothing happens or a Commerce Secretary dies during your watch. How many civilians watching something happen around the world on cable TV take the time to think about what is also happening in duty rooms around the world?