Of Captains Queeg, Sharpe, Snipes, and Graf

It is generally understood that as a columnist I am an expert on nearly everything. True enough.

But AT LARGE has unique qualifications when it comes to commenting on the case of Navy Captain Holly Graf – she’s the erstwhile commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens whose career ran aground, the Washington Post reports, for “subjecting her crew to “cruelty and maltreatment” aboard a warship in the Pacific.

You see, for a year or two during the early 60s, I was subjected to cruelty and mistreatment – most of it richly deserved – as an enlisted sailor in aboard the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship that plied Pacific, tho not always pacific, waters from the later 1950s to the early 1990s. The Old Navy when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel? Sure, but that credential makes me better qualified than most to comment on fey skippers.

Which brings us to the title of this opus:

You all know Capt. Queeg, the fictional anti-hero of the Caine Mutiny Court Martial. (Attn. Birthers and Tea Party people: Cowpens, Caine. A coincidence, I think not!) Humphrey Bogart, ball bearings… Capt. Queeg was – to use the clinical term – mad as a hatter, and got his just desserts, but not his strawberries back in the end. (Good flick! Tho the Caine doesn’t have much to do with the rest of this story, I couldn’t resist the ‘strawberry and just desserts’ line.)

Capt. Richard Sharpe – hero of a fictional PBS series about Brits fighting Napoleon in Spain – was an Army, not a Navy captain. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with such nuances – including more than a few commentators on La Affair Graf –- an Army captain is a Navy lieutenant; a Navy captain is the same rank as an Army colonel, but anyone who commands a ship is called ‘Captain,’ regardless of actual rank. Anyhow, Sharpe was commissioned from the ranks and a major subplot in the series centers on the ex-sergeant’s travails in earning the respect of both enlisted and commissioned colleagues in the class-conscious British military because that former enlisted status makes him ‘not a proper officer.’ More on this later.

Which brings us to Capt. Beecher Snipes, who commanded the Pyro when I first came aboard: Snipes might well be described as a ‘crusty sea dog.’ Now, the ‘auxiliary fleet’ comprised of ammunition ships, oilers and such – armed freighters – wasn’t generally a card that needed to be punched by officers sailing for naval ‘stardom. But as a ‘deep draft’ command, the Pyro and its ilk were stepping stones to commanding an elite ship, specifically an aircraft carrier. That was where Snipes was heading.

Not! Shortly before I graced the Pyro’s decks, the ship was returning to its homeport in Port Chicago, CA, outside San Francisco. As required by law, a civilian pilot was steering the ship. To make a long, sad story short, the pilot, slightly tipsy, it turned out, ran the ship aground. Civilian pilot required by law or not, as captain, Snipes was blamed based on the venerable Naval principal that the commanding officer is responsible for everything good and bad that occurs on or to his/her ship. Carrier command: Scuttled. Hopes for an admiral’s star: Sunk. Naval career: Effectively over.

But the Old Navy took care of its own (after taking care of its own’s career, so to speak). Capt. Snipes retained command of the Pyro.

Now you have to understand that then – and probably now – a Navy ship could be described as Lord of the Flies Goes to Sea. Except for the captain, the number two ‘executive officer’ and perhaps a couple senior enlisted people, the term ‘adult leadership’ is an oxymoron.

A ‘salty old’ chief petty officer might be 29. Most of the officers – generally decent and admirable sorts then and now, but don’t tell them I said so! – were fresh out of college ROTC programs and more than a little over their heads in deep water, at sea at sea, so to speak. The only fellow from Annapolis on the Pyro was the son of a Chesapeake Bay waterman who enlisted, like more than a few of us, faced with a choice of a hull number or a cell number. What with their fate for the most part in the hands of juvenile delinquents, college boys, old rummies and such, captains – remember they’re responsible for everything that happens on a vessel under their command – tend to get a bit testy.

Tho a dead man walking career-wise, crusty Capt. Snipes got even testier after the sandbar sojourn, throwing himself into on-the-job training of future Navy leaders while riding the ocean blue atop 27,000 tons of ammo.

He colorfully berated everyone, but especially officers when they screwed up, often, oh dear me, taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Representative examples:

• Once, Capt. Snipes spied a line (rope, in civilian-speak) hanging off the ship’s fantail. He summoned the second division officer, a seeming intelligent, but gangly and given to stuttering under pressure lieutenant named George Frye to a crowded bridge for 12 minutes of verbal abuse culminating in the benediction – with some two score iterations of the ‘f-word’ removed – “The next time I see a line hanging off the back of my boat, I want you to be on the end of it.” There is no record of Lt. Frye, who, scuttlebutt reports, later won a Purple Heart for running into a low hanging bulkhead door during Vietnamese patrol boat attack scare, whining to higher authority about the reaming or any indication that higher authority would have reacted to such whinging with anything but orders to ‘man-up.’
• Two petty officers sneaked off an authorized beach to an unauthorized brothel in Okinawa, missing the boat when the Pyro suddenly sailed away to elude a typhoon. Eventually, they were returned to the Pyro from an aircraft carrier at sea (using an accommodation chair, a skimpy seat attached two lines connecting the rolling ships – the transfer itself being a form of punishment which would have certainly sent the Cowpens crew crying to Mama). While the AWOLs were still literally swinging softly in the wind between boats, Capt. Snipes convened a non-judicial punishment ‘Captain’s Mast’ with a megaphone, finding them guilty and restricting them to the ship until ‘you die, I die or Christ calls forth the f***ing dead.’ No doubt traumatized by the verbal abuse, the sailors still declined to report the “cruelty and maltreatment” to their union reps (sic).

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, so Capt. Snipes became a bit eccentric at play as well as at work. When delayed in reaching libation(s) at the Subic Bay Officer’s Club because more senior skippers’ launches – small boats used to travel to inhabited areas from deep water berths where ships, especially ones stuffed with explosives, were allowed to anchor – were lined up to land at the pier, he improvised. The skipper ordered the launch to pull up next to two destroyers tied up side-by-side, chinned himself aboard the outlying ship, shouted, “Pyro crossing!,” went ashore and headed for the nearest bar.

In my brief and by-no-means glorious naval career, Beecher Snipes’s eccentricities were more the rule than the exception: One on-his-way-out-to-pasture skipper spent his final days in Yokosuka, Japan, hiding behind buildings and writing-up sailors who failed to salute him; another was fond of telling editors of the base newspaper, “This ain’t no Goddamn democracy; it’s a dictatorship and I’m the f***ing dictator.”

But save in the case of the ‘salute police skipper,’ most enlisted and junior officers overcame their traumas to develop a grudging respect and even affection for crusty captains. Tars bragged on having survived the salty skippers’ reigns when moving on to their next ship. (In the Navy, there are only two good ships, your next one and your last one!) Remember, the verbal ‘cruelty and abuse’ is only verbal (sticks and stones many break my bones…) and tongue lashings in many cases both taught a memorable lesson while substituting for far more draconian punishment. After all, these were ‘proper officers.’

Which brings us to Capt. Holly Graf.

While I personally witnessed or have first hand testimony on the tales related above, I – thankfully, the good captain and I probably wouldn’t have hit it off – wasn’t on the Cowpens.

But steering the risky course of relying on media reports, some questions arise about why the Navy chose to deck the halls with Holly’s head.

1) Allegedly, Capt. Graf “humiliated crewmembers in front of the rest of the crew by calling them ‘idiots’ and ‘stupid’ as she spat a stream of obscenities.” Temporarily putting aside the fact that sailors tend to ‘swear like sailors,’ were the recipients of the tongue-lashing, in fact ‘stupid?’ Did they, perhaps, do something ‘stupid’ or ‘idiotic’ that put the ship or crew in danger? Say, lock missiles on a civilian airliner? Did the nature of the tongue-lashing cause them to mend their ways? And did this form of, ah, guidance, take the place of a more draconian punishment that was at the skipper’s discretionary disposal?
2) Her rather extensive vocabulary of four-letter words may have been enough to ‘make a sailor blush’ and ‘intimidated her crew.’ Tough! I guarantee you that any captain who can’t intimidate the crew at some time or another needs to examine other career paths. And don’t forget: Bearing the brutal brunt of military style verbal abuse and the ability to withstand a ‘stream of obscenities’ is, believe me, good practice for marriage.
3) Google Gen. Patton if you don’t believe me: Not-so-nice people sometime make great leaders. Graf’s methods aside, was the USS Cowpens a better, more efficient, more combat-ready ship after Capt. Graf’s truncated tenure than before she arrived?
4) Then there’s the so-called ‘drag race,’ over which the civilian media tends to ‘tsk, tsk’ at Capt. Graf while grudgingly conceding that Navy investigators cleared her of ‘endangering the Cowpens.’ You call it a drag race; I call it operational testing. Specs aside, a commanding officer needs to know what a ship will do in an emergency situation where a knot of performance plus or minus can make the difference between a near miss and a torpedo amidships. There’s an expression for not testing capabilities before shots are fired in anger: dereliction of duty.
5) Doesn’t rank have its privileges anymore? Asking juniors to walk a dog or, horror upon horror, play the piano at a party is a tradition – albeit annoying if you’re the junior – that lives on in most hierarchies from the State Department to the Vatican. But dusting the ivory at a holiday fete isn’t comparable to flogging and is probably a far better deal than a midnight to 4 am. watch on New Year’s.
6) Someone’s gotta say it: If the complaining seagoing wimps and whiners can’t bear a little captainly ‘ca-ca’ mouth from Capt. Holly without losing self-esteem and ‘getting all upset,’ what’s going to happen if they ever cross paths with, say, a foul-mouthed Iranian POW interrogator, a Marine gunnery sergeant or go to work for Donald Trump, for that matter?

And finally we get to the question that no one seemingly has dared ask.

If Capt. Holly Graf were a ‘proper – read ‘male’ – officer,’ would she still be cussing up a storm on the Cowpens or even sewing on a star?

Damned if I know.

11 Responses to “Of Captains Queeg, Sharpe, Snipes, and Graf”

  1. 1 t.s. sanborn
    March 7, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    A pleasant surprise!! Always thought there was journalistic talent hiding somewhere. When does your book come out?

  2. March 7, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I think i deserve at least some credit for avoiding the words ‘shoveling BS in the Cowpens

  3. 3 John
    March 8, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I wrote this long not-so-eloguent response and forgot to include my email address so the damn computer erased it so I’m not going to re-write it. These computers are a pain in the rear – first it said I couldn’t open your blog because you were in the “unknown zone” (actually, it kind of made some sense). It also said I was “unprotected” – that, too, made sense. Anyhow the the basis for my response was how the hell can they dress down Graf when her own boss (and commander-in-chief (lower case) has less experience and is more arrogant than she is/was. I’d be interested in what Susan has to say about he Graf situation…and if she agrees that she likely was better qualified to command that ship than BO. That said…I thoroughly enjoyed your very eloquent and enjoyable blog. Take care, John

  4. 4 Cornwell
    March 8, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Unqualified to respond. But, Navy reactions to – ahem, “controversial issues” – are surprisingly, nay, militarily reminiscent of an incident I endured in Viet Nam. Officers and higher-level NCO’s are allowed to debase, from basic training to grave. “Damn the torpedo’s, full speed ahead.”

  5. 5 Mike
    March 9, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Go Jared!!! Excellent writing, and look forward to your next book. Presumably it will be a novel, since you put Holly Graf in the same class as Queeg, Sharpe, and, God forbid, your former CO Capt Beecher Snipes.

    Everything I read about Holly suggests that she is an incompetent sailor both personally and technically. No doubt she succeeded because of her family relations and the b awful PC culture that existed in the Pentagon under Bush and favoured incompetent women.

    With Obama in charge that PC culture will be replaced by a more pragmatic and professional approach, and we’ll sail calmly into the sunset sipping pink gins with our feet up on the wardroom table.

    Oh, I forgot, your lot have ‘dry ship’, so you have to come over to us for cocktails… :-p

    • March 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm

      Dry ships may be the problem, tho one can only assume the Facebook warriors on the USS Cowpens would opt for herbal tea…

      I do note that those on the Left (Labour in yr dialect) tend to blame this (and everything else) on President-emeritus Bush while those on the Right say this (and everything else) is the fault of President Obama. But for the record, most all the reported events took place on W’s — and certainly Secretary Perry’s — watch…

  6. 7 Daniel (Cuz-in-law-by-law)
    March 12, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Jared – Brilliant! I subscribed.

    As a somewhat disinterested party aboard the USS Essex (Marine officer with no permanent address aboard other than my troop berth 02-2-54-L) for 3+ years (2003-2006), I have a recent perspective of the ongoing pusification (as in pusillanimous, of course) of our naval service. If not for color-blindness that I couldn’t cover up (but tried) during the medical exam phase, I would have been a Navy man. I love the sea, love the lore, and was probably the only guy in my high school able to quote The Caine Mutiny and Mr. Roberts in the same year Forest Gump won an Oscar. You put your finger right on the problem – would Nimitz have entertained the complaining of a crew under the lawful command of a captain on a no-kidding, tip-of-the-spear warship? Would Perry? Would JP Jones?

    If you give them command, you have to let them exercise it. We have enough bombings to defend against – the F-bomb isn’t the problem.

    • March 12, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      “…the F-bomb isn’t the problem…” Marines (it’s a word that doesn’t take a past tense) have a superb skill for cutting to the chase and weeding out irrelevant information.

      I also neglected to mention mentioned Adm. Rickover — even without editors, a self imposed word limit applies. His ‘abuse and mistreatment’ of underlings — even overlings(sic) — was legendary and included a future President, Jimmy Carter. If only Carter had emulated the good admiral a bit more in running his administration and U. S. foreign policy, the course of history might well have been different.

  7. 9 Frank Aubry
    March 15, 2010 at 3:14 am

    You sure haven’t changed. I wonder if you recall the line from Lt. Mead about whistling…only queers and boatswains mates partake. How about Jones’ headline “Honest sailor found at last”. I’ve had many nightmares about “them good ole days”…nightmares 20 years after ‘graduating’.

    • March 15, 2010 at 8:48 pm

      Before I get into the substance of my old friend Frank Aubrey’s comment, I need to say: I would rather have my tongue torn out of my head than offend anyone – especially for, shall we say, non-mainstream approved proclivities.

      So I thought long and hard about editing out the very accurate quote Frank included about Lt. Mead’s view of whistling. In the end, I didn’t because – like Twain’s language in Huck Finn – this comment accurately reflected a telling fact about the Old Navy: Everyone got insulted by someone, sometime, whether it was lieutenants at the hands of captains, captains at the hands of admirals, engineers (“snipes”) at the hands of boatswain’s mates (“deck apes”), lifers by short-timers, short-timers by lifers, fat kids by less fat kids, sea sick succumb-ers by non-sufferers of mal de mere, folks who could read and write by all the rest…the list goes on and on. Tho the obvious groups likely received more than their share of the abuse and this wasn’t exactly the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, there was something, dare I say evenhanded about the cross-the-board nature of the pervasive abuse. And as I said, being on the end of foul-mouthed abuse is good practice for marriage and a career in politics.

      Lt. Mead was second in command of the public information office at Commander Naval Forces Japan in Yokosuka where Frank and yours truly both labored mightily to protect your mothers and grandmothers from the sweaty embrace of Communist warlords with broom handles who wanted to despoil them and The American Way of Life with their Godless Marxist/Stalinist philosophies. (Tho I have solicited gratitude of the physical sort from countless females and their offspring we saved though our loyal, drunken service, not one has succumbed to such blandishments to date. I suspect Frank did better in this department, but who knows.)

      The man in charge of our unit was Capt. Richard McCool, a WWII medal of honor winner-turned Navy flack. In addition to being a hero, Capt. McCool was an all-around good guy, who, unlike most of the skippers mentioned previous, had little time for what we charmingly called ‘Navy chicken s**t.’ This was distinctly not the case with Lt. Mead, who immersed himself and all around him in said substance. (Possible cause: He was a PR man who had difficulty, despite a presumed college education, in stringing together a coherent sentence; thus in the Navy tradition, we was place in charge of editing people who could.) Tho we were generally a bunch of wimps – well except for Frank Aubrey, who was and is a pretty tough guy — Lt. Mead was a big believer in physical fitness… for us. I don’t think he really expected that, should the North Koreans surreptitiously infiltrate our base, we would drive them off by hitting them with our typewriters. Probably so just wanted to brag at the officer’s club about his muscular warriors.

      As to the headlines in the base newspaper that caused the trouble (with the ‘this ain’t no damned democracy’ captain): There were two: The one Frank mentions headed a story about a Navy man who had found and returned a cash-stuffed wallet to its owner. The headline had a kicker that said ‘Diogenes arriving.’ The captain probably didn’t know who Diogenes, the seeker of an honest man,’ was and took it as an insult to sailors.

      The headline, perhaps in the same edition, that caused the most trouble was also rather innocent. We reviewed movies that were set to play at the base theater. One was an only slightly risqué by today’s standards flick called Candy. Candy Starts Trend Toward Funny Smut was the headline I wrote for the review – which I believe we picked up from a wire service. Likely unaware of the meaning of ‘smut,’ the captain went postal. After making the ‘democracy’ remark, he ordered all 2,500 copies of the newspaper burned.

      The ‘Jones’ you refer to was Winston Ashley Jones, the newspaper editor. (I was the assistant editor.)

      He failed to understand that the First Amendment applies to publishers, not reporters and fought the captain. Wisely, I was a moral coward and offered the enraged captain my lighter.

      This sent off a train of events that resulted in Jones being bounced out of the Navy with a general (as I recall) discharge for ‘the good of the service.’

      My friend and former fellow sailor of sorts, Bill Stevens, and I have tried to find out what happened to Winston Ashley Jones after his discharge, but to no avail. (The best way to avoid Internet detection is to be surnamed Jones…)
      Sure would like to find out!

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Jared Cameron

It is better to smoke a single candle that to curse the darkness

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