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Sea Stories: #59. Fruit Salad. The Battle "E"


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Sea Stories: #59. Fruit Salad. The Battle “E”


Military uniforms and insignia are designed to convey a good deal of information about the wearer in visual form, rapidly and distinctively. Dress uniforms, with all of the wearer's badges of rank, emblems of qualification and ribbons or medals of awards displayed on them, enable the knowledgeable observer to tell instantly what the wearer has done, and where he has served. The colorful array of ribbons and devices is sometimes referred to as “fruit salad.”

Ships also display a record of their achievements, proudly posted where they can be seen. These include unit awards, like the Meritorious Unit Commendation, the Navy Unit Commendation, and various campaign operations, which are usually displayed by painting facsimiles of their ribbons on the superstructure. Also proudly displayed are cyclic Departmental Awards, which represent tested and demonstrated excellence in such key skills as Damage Control, Engineering, Electronic Warfare, Navigation, Gunnery, etc. These are usually painted emblems or the Letter “E” painted in colors specific to their departments (green for Operations, Red for Engineering, etc.) The Big Daddy of them all is the Battle Effectiveness award (in my day called the Battle Efficiency award, or “Battle E.”) Presented to only one ship per squadron, the Battle E marks the ship which as been adjudged to have performed the best over a specific year. It is a keen competition among sister ships to earn and display the distinction. It is marked by a large white “E” on the superstructure, and a small red triangular pennant with a black circle on it, called “the Meatball” which is flown from the mainmast truck. I was honored to have served aboard two Battle “E” winners, and proudly wore that ribbon on my uniform until retirement.

I distinctly remember the evaluation cycle which ended in December 1989. My ship, USS TAURUS (PHM-3) had been doing very well, and was a strong contender for the Battle “E” award. Several of our sister ships had had various misfortunes, and were not really believed to be in the running. USS PEGASUS (PHM-1) was lackluster at best. Two other sisters had run aground, at the same spot in the channel into Morehead City, NC. The one ship that we thought might be in serious contention with us was USS AQUILA (PHM-4). A fine ship, AQUILA had worked hard, done well and she looked great. My XO counterpart aboard her was and is a close friend.


The appointed day came for the announcement of the Battle E award....and in an inexplicable effort to improve morale among the USS PEGASUS's crew (which had been somewhat demoralized, as she was so often mechanically broken that she had gone almost nowhere and done almost nothing the entire year) the Squadron chose her for the honor. About five minutes after the announcement, I was sitting in irate disbelief when I got a call from the quarterdeck telling me “Sir, the XO of the AQUILA is on his way down to see you.” My friend Brad burst into my stateroom/office, eyes ablaze. Shutting the door, he turned to face me and exclaimed “WE WAS ROBBED!” I couldn't agree more, then and now.


But justice was eventually done. Not long after she was given the Battle “E”, PEGASUS underwent a major inspection, and she did extremely poorly, in several aspects. It was a major embarrassment for the ship and the Squadron. And the PEGASUS' s Commanding Officer, rightly displeased, lowered the boom on his low-performing crew. HE MADE THEM PAINT OVER THE BATTLE “E” AND HAUL DOWN THE MEATBALL. He wouldn't let them display the award as he felt they were undeserving of it, and he only let them reaffix those marks to the ship when he felt their performance had significantly improved. And USS TAURUS, continuing her excellent performance, deservedly earned the Battle “E” the following year.


Navy units also display individual achievement when earned, in conformance with a very old tradition of keeping score and counting coup. Pilots paint an emblem for each kill on their fuselage. Destroyers paint little emblems for subs or ships sunk, targets attacked, etc. And the Hydrofoils, so often employed in counternarcotics operations, affixed unique emblems representing the drug busts they made. These were little marijuana leaves, or snowflakes to represent cocaine seizures.


The pennant is "The Meatball."  The upper ship photo is USS TAURUS in her prime, proudly displaying her “fruit salad.” The lower is the only remaining PHM, USS ARIES (PHM-5) which was saved from scrapping, privately purchased, and is now being kept as a museum up a river in Missouri. She is not looking her best these days.





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