Posts Tagged ‘Navy

07
Mar
10

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.

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Jared Cameron


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