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Sea Stories: Don't Antagonize A Superior Officer


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Sea Stories:  Don’t Antagonize a Superior Officer


The Navy sets great store by the concept of seniority.  Whichever line officer is senior to the other is in charge, period.  No matter competence, ability, or lack thereof.  Seniority is seniority, and it is closely and jealously guarded.  And seniority can literally be measured in infinitesimal increments.  Officers have what is called a Lineal Number.  The lower the number, the more senior the officer.  Two officers of the same rank may have been commissioned on the same day, but one is assigned a lower number, and is therefore eternally senior, unless the other is promoted in rank over him.  The Lineal Numbers are kept in a big book, and everyone has a copy and is instantly aware of who is senior to whom.  It’s almost an obsession.  And you don’t EVER want to get on the bad side of an officer senior to you.  He might just sit on your next promotion board.  When in company, whichever ship’s Commanding Officer is senior is automatically in charge of all the others. 

Two anecdotes illustrate the point:

1.       In the early 1980s, the WWII Battleship USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62) was extensively modified and recommissioned at Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  My ship was there undergoing baseline overhaul at the same time.  NEW JERSEY was a seagoing behemoth, bigger, heavier and of a much more storied history than any other ship in the area.  Her Captain (O-6) was a hot-running future admiral, who had been given the best command assignment in decades.  The Navy spared no expense or trouble to get NEW JERSEY back in commission.  This process included having shipyard workers clock into jobs aboard us regular peons, and then disappear to go work on NEW JERSEY, so that she would be delivered “on time and under budget.”  The strategy worked, and she was.  But a lot of other ships got tired of her getting top billing and the best of everything.  It tends to grate on a sailor after a time. 

After she was commissioned, NEW JERSEY was assigned to a Surface Action Group for a little “show the flag” cruise, and had several other ships with her as supporting players.  They performed exercises and steamed about smartly, showing the flag.  One of the ships assigned to this little flotilla was an aged amphibious transport ship.  These unsung heroes deliver Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC – the Marines) wherever they need to go to kick someone’s ass as directed by higher authority.  It is an unglamorous duty, as it somehow lacks the dashing esprit of a cruiser or destroyer.  It certainly doesn’t compare to a freshly painted and spit-shined battleship.   So I can understand how NEW JERSEY’s acclaim must have chafed some of the crew.

One of the exercises ships usually perform when in company for show is called “Pass In Review”, and it dates back to the age of sail.  Everybody lines up, and sets a fairly slow, steady speed.  The last ship in line hauls out, speeds up, and passes everyone else, rendering salutes as they pass.  Whomever is junior initiates the salute when it happens – seniority is everything, remember, and juniors initiate, seniors return salutes.  Then the next ship, now last, repeats the process until everyone has had their turn to pass and salute or be saluted.  It’s all very dignified and traditional.

So “Pass In Review” was ordered.  Here came the Amphibious Transport.  And just when they got alongside NEW JERSEY (whose Captain was senior to all), things got interesting.   NEW JERSEY’s Captain got on the bridge to bridge radio, and called the Amphib’s Captain (an O-5 Commander) , saying “Commander, I don’t appreciate your sentiments.”  When the poor junior CO professed lack of understanding, he was directed to look at his starboard quarter.  There, some pissed off junior sailor had hung a large banner made of bedsheets on the helicopter deck safety nets, painted with the immortal words “BIG J SUCKS”. 

A tiny figure dressed in khaki, believed to be the Amphib’s CO, was seen running aft at full speed but couldn’t run back there fast enough to tear it down before lots of other sailors saw it too.  And so a legend was born. 

image.png.0790ea62b5b487a5c6141f851cfd4232.png  Dock Landing Ship Photo Index LSD-36 Anchorage

2.       Friday afternoons off San Diego, California used to be a busy time.  Several ships would have been at sea operating for a few days, and everyone would be returning for the weekend.  Ships would start jockeying for position in a long line, as everyone can’t enter port simultaneously.  Ships need tugs to assist them in tying up, harbor pilots are sometimes required, and the channel can’t hold everyone at the same time.  So, some get to go first, and some have to wait their turn.

The line had formed one Friday afternoon, and my Captain (O-6) was on the bridge in his chair, reigning over his maritime kingdom.  (This is the Screamer of Legend who has figured prominently in several earlier Sea Stories.)

The Commanding Officer (O-5) of a SPRUANCE-class destroyer back in the line somewhere got impatient. He had command of a fast, maneuverable, gas-turbine powered greyhound and I guess it had gone to his head.  So he hauled out, rang up fast bells and began a dash for the channel entrance, figuring that he would just slip into line and no one would notice.  Ahhh, no.

My skipper sat bolt upright in his chair, grabbed the bridge-to-bridge radio, and called over to the destroyer and asked to speak with the CO.  Speaking”, came the reply.  And my Captain announced, for all ships present to hear: “That would be the worst mistake of your career, Commander.

A subdued “Roger, out” was immediately followed by a chastened destroyer slowing and resuming its place in the back of the line.

The Spruance-class Destroyer Uss Kinkaid (dd 965) | Free ...

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We had a couple of O-6s in our org who were always measuring their appendages. The exchange would go back and forth for a while, and always end with "What's your date of rank, Colonel?" And the answer was always the same. But they'd do it all again in a week or two.

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