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Sea Stories: Midnight Passageways, and a "Hostile Leadership Climate"...Really!


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Sea Stories:  Midnight Passageways and a “Hostile Leadership Climate”….Really!


In 1984, my ship was undergoing Refresher Training (REFTRA) in preparation for a 7-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.  The ship was a steam-powered 564-foot, 9600 ton guided missile cruiser, commanded by a Captain (O-6) and with a crew of approximately 500 men.  The Commanding Officer was a legendary “screamer”, who had a notorious reputation for abusive leadership and who harbored a limitless ambition for promotion to flag rank.  This guy was going to be an admiral, come hell or high water, and woe to anyone who he perceived as standing in his way in any manner, great or small. 

One peculiar aspect of this Captain’s leadership philosophy was his absolute insistence that the ship look her COSMETIC best at all times.  Appearance was the most important aspect of life aboard this ship.  (I later learned that this idea was directly cribbed from a 1956 movie, Away All Boats, starring Jeff Chandler and featuring a very young Clint Eastwood in a bit part.)  “Run she may, but shine she must” was the mantra of this philosophy, modified slightly by our CO to “Run she will, but shine she must” – he was fully willing to demand both his cake and the privilege of eating it too.

There were lots of manifestations of this philosophy put into action on this ship, but probably the most stark example was the ship’s routine of “Midnight Passageways.”  Now, this was a major combatant warship; first and foremost a fighting vessel, packed with men, machinery and weapons and intended to seek out and destroy enemies.  It is an industrial environment, characterized by close quarters, much to do and much to practice and maintain in order to be able to fulfil that role.  There was plenty to keep the men occupied with meaningful work and training.  But that stuff won’t get you your admiral’s stars….APPEARANCE will. 

So the Captain demanded that every bulkhead of every passageway on the ship be painted in gloss white enamel.  Every deck was tiled in royal blue linoleum tile.  No black vinyl baseboards intended to hide shoe scuffs and other evidence of firehoses, machinery or heavy traffic were allowed.  Shiny white paint extended down to shiny waxed blue tile, and a bead of shiny white caulk ran down the seam where the two met.  This, in every passageway through the entire ship.

To maintain this pristine environment of stunning beauty, the Captain mandated “Midnight Passageway” details.  This meant that every night in port, on the midnight watch when most of the duty section was asleep, a First Class Petty Officer (E6) mustered a working party of a dozen or so junior enlisted men, who proceeded to strip, wax and buff the deck of every single passageway aboard the ship.  They also had to apply touch up paint to any dings in the bulkhead enamel which might have appeared through the day.  Every. Single. Night.

Then, when all was complete and the shiny new floor wax was dry, the First Class Petty Officer inspected each passageway.  He then awoke a Chief Petty Officer (E-7/8/or/9) who then inspected each passageway, to ensure it had been polished sufficiently.  And ultimately, a junior officer had to perform an inspection when summoned by the CPO.  By about 0400 or so, the process would be completed, unless immediate corrective action needed to be taken.

All of this was but prelude.  At about 0600, the ship’s Executive Officer (XO, or second-in-command, in this case a Commander (O-5)) arrived onboard, ensuring that he arrived well before the Captain.  The XO had to be met on the Quarterdeck upon his arrival by the First Class Petty Officer from the night before, and they together walked through and inspected every single passageway.  And if things were not sufficiently shiny to the XO’s satisfaction, there was immediate hell to pay. The Officer and CPO whose passageway was the offender would be immediately summoned, chewed out publicly and singled out for verbal abuse and humiliation on the spot.  This then flowed downhill to all concerned below them.  In time, as the Captain’s screening board for promotion approached, the XO’s abusive conduct ratcheted up even further.  He began to actually lay hands on sailors;  shoving them, jacking them up against bulkheads, cursing at them, manhandling them, when real or imagined deficiencies were noted in the passageways shined at midnight by tired, sleep-deprived, dispirited sailors with too much to do as it was.  Now, striking an officer is a very serious offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), so these men were basically powerless to defend themselves.  He knew this, hid behind his rank, and abused them with impunity.

Needless to say, unpunished crime begets further transgression.  Things came to a head during Refresher Training.  For those who do not know, REFTRA is the most intense and difficult period in a ship’s life, short of actual battle damage.  For a period of 4-6 weeks, a team of trainers and inspectors come aboard, and put the ship through an extensive series of drills, grading each one and noting both performance and material deficiencies.  The standards are extremely demanding.  Drills are intense, and go on all day and all night, in port and at sea.  Sleep deprivation is a way of life.  And careers can be ruined if the ship does poorly.  Captains and Engineers and other officers can be summarily relieved.  It is a very stressful and difficult process. 

One night, late at night in REFTRA, the ship was called to General Quarters.  That means “battle stations” for a drill, with each man reporting to his battle station.  It became apparent that the drill of the moment was focused on engineering.  So many of these men were completely superfluous to the situation, had no role in standing the current watch, and were simply awake and standing by for no reason.  I was the Communications Officer, and responsible for the Radiomen and Signalmens’ divisions.  I was not there to witness what happened next, but was told in great detail by several eyewitnesses.

My Radio Compartment was full of all of the ship’s radiomen.  Several had watch duties, several did not, and had been awakened just to go to General Quarters.  So one of my E-6 Radiomen (who had no current role to play and who had to be rested and performing well in just a few hours when it was his turn to stand watch as a radio supervisor) found a spot out of the way between several racks of radio equipment, laid down on deck and went back to sleep.  I have no problem with this; fatigue management is a POSITIVE skill for a combat leader.  Having some men rested for later duties is a useful mission factor.

Something brought the XO into Radio.  He was already very agitated about something.  And he spied the sleeping E-6.  He flew into a rage, ran over and began KICKING THE SLEEPING MAN, hard, in the ribs and gut, with what were described to me as full force, field-goal, soccer penalty kicks.  He was frothing at the mouth, spitting curses and hurling abuse on the man while landing pedal haymakers. And then he departed.

The ship returned to port the following day, undertook some material maintenance and repairs, and then got back underway in about 18-24 hours.  And when the ship got underway, the assaulted E-6 Radioman did not report aboard, and missed the ship’s movement.  This is a major infraction under the UCMJ, and the Radio Chief Petty Officer reported his absence to me immediately.  Efforts to contact the man ashore failed.  And while the ship was at sea this day, it received a message from the Surface Forces Pacific (SURFPAC) Public Affairs Officer.   SURFPAC had been contacted by the San Diego Union newspaper, who were investigating a report they had been given that a ship’s officer had assaulted an enlisted man aboard the ship.  SURFPAC wanted to know what to tell the San Diego Union.

A private conference was called with the CO, the XO, and my department head, the Operations Officer.  A brief cable was sent back to SURFPAC, saying only that the matter was “being investigated”, thereby buying time.  The ship returned to port that afternoon on schedule…..and was met by the missing E-6 Radioman, who was standing on the pier.  He had already told several shipmates that he was severely bruised and had been urinating blood, before he missed movement.  He had a pensive, resigned look on his face.

The Operations Officer met the man on the quarterdeck, and immediately escorted him directly to the Captain’s cabin, where the door was shut in my face.  As his Division Officer, I should have been included in any and all conversations with the man, but I was not.  After about 20 minutes, the Radioman came out, went directly to his locker, and packed all his uniforms and other belongings.  He was reluctant to speak to any of his shipmates.  But he did tell his Chief Petty Officer that he had been asked “what do you want?”  He had replied that he wanted immediate transfer off the ship, to a shore duty station in the Pacific Northwest.  And a telephone call to the USN personnel command had resulted in the immediate issuance of transfer orders to that duty station.   The Radioman departed, bulging seabag over his shoulder, to his new shore duty assignment.   SURFPAC was subsequently informed that the investigation had determined that there was no truth to the report of physical assault on a crewman by a senior officer aboard the ship.  And REFTRA went on.  And the passageways gleamed the next day as always.  But the XO had a new nickname used behind his back by the members of the crew: “Boots.”

P.S.:  The Captain DID make admiral.  The XO was eventually given command of a destroyer, subsequently promoted to Captain (O-6) and assigned as a Destroyer Squadron Commander and an Aircraft Carrier Division Chief of Staff before his retirement.  Such is the nature of life.


Edited by Gunboat1
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In 1984 I deployed aboard the USS Belleau Wood for a 6 month westpac. The ship’s CO was one of the best leaders I have ever seen. A superb ship handler who looked out for his crew (and his embarked Marines). Treated everyone like his son. He had done all of his previous sea tours on the East coast, and had never crossed the equator. He took the shellback ceremony with great humor.

The night before we pulled into Hong Kong, he spoke to the ship’s company officers in the wardroom. Since I was assigned as CO of embarked troops, I attended, too, out of curiosity more than anything. The Captain told his officers that the ship might have to anchor “out in the stream”, since a berth pierside might not be available. So he gave a 10 minute “hip pocket” class on tying up to a buoy in the harbor, similar to what you described in another thread. He knew every detail... a master of his craft.

To the delight of everyone on board, he was selected for a star on the way home. He retired after 40 years with 3 stars. Died of ALS in 2014.

Edited by TXUSMC
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As a retired SMCS that was a rough story. I was very fortunate and only had one weak Captain out of six ships. Also on a cruiser, probably a sister ship. He was not a screamer but a petty nitpicker.

I enjoy your stories.

Edited by flags
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