The commanding officer in any military unit is the number one factor in crew morale and success of the mission. He is more important than anything else by an order of magnitude. He is the prime cause of happiness and success, or he is the prime cause of misery and possible failure. In my twenty five year Navy career I have had excellent CO’s, decent CO’s, and one (mostly) terrible CO.
Let’s talk briefly about the two great ones. The first is VADM Henry F. Herrera. He wasn’t an admiral when I knew him; that came later. He was my skipper on the first Trident I served on, the USS Michigan (SSBN 727) (Blue) from 1989 to 1990. His nickname at that time, which was never said in his presence, was “Hollering Hank.” He did like to get loud — especially with the officers. Did I say that a great CO has to be Mr. Rogers? Nope. He can get loud and still be a great leader. The crew loved him, especially the enlisted men. He was the first Cuban-American to command a submarine, and as a nod to the smokers assembled here, loved his real Cuban Cohibas. Family connection of course!
He was a very colourful character. Supervisory watchstanders had to have an interview with him as final qualification. He had a habit of humming the Jeopardy tune when he was waiting for the answer to a question. I knew about this ahead of time, but it was still pretty unnerving to have his black eyes looking into mine while humming this particular tune.
He was a passionate man. He loved his wife Ruth, and she him. Once when we were entering drydock, she was waiting on the pier to come see him, and he was getting impatient. The water level was getting low, and we were almost on the blocks when he called the dock master on the walkie-talkie and asked how much water remained until we touched down. I don’t recall the exact number, but Captain Herrera said to the Chief of the Watch in the Control room, “Chief of the Watch, open the main ballast tank vents! The vents opened, the boat dropped the last foot or so to the blocks, and the brow swung into place. Happy couple reunited.
In another memorable incident during refit, he could be heard yelling with Lieutenant Jermusyk. I don’t recall the subject, but at the end, Captain Herrera thought about it for a moment, and then said, “You know what, Jermusyk, you’re right.”
Oddly enough, LT Jermusyk always got excellent Fitreps. First, because he excelled in all that he did, but most importantly, because he had the courage of his convictions—and the courage to shout down the CO when he was right. Captain Herrera respected the LT and the Fitrep reflected it. Another time the skipper was dressing down a friend of mine, IC2(SS) Lee DeCamp, an enlisted man. Later Lee told me the captain came to him to apologise for the incident. This was soon learned about by the rest of the crew and added to the respect we had for Captain Herrera.
Each patrol we had a major inspection by teams that came aboard about four days before returning to port. It alternated between Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam (ORSE) and Tactical Readiness Evaluation (TRE). The many casualty drills we ran during the 75 plus day patrol were geared toward the inspection.
On ORSE runs, the focus was on the engineering plant, with simulated steam line ruptures, high pressure air leaks, propulsion lube oil fires, reactor fast insertions and scrams and spills of radioactive water. Nuclear records and all associated documents were gone over with a fine tooth comb by select senior crew members, because the ORSE team would be doing the same. This intense regime was originated by the father of nuclear propulsion, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. It paid off, as we never lost a nuke boat to an engineering casualty, except for the USS Thresher (SSN 593) in April of 1963 with a loss of 129 lives. That accident was caused by design flaws (not related to nuclear propulsion) that were corrected in all existing boats and the ones built after.
On TRE runs, the focus was on fighting the ship and missile drills and casualties. I have to say here that we always did engineering and tactical drills each run, but the focus was on the inspection. We did torpedo hot runs, which cost the Navy the USS Scorpion (SSN 589) and 99 lives in 1966. We did many simulated attacks on enemy submarines using a superb simulator that put contacts into the sonar system that appeared to be real. We did simulated missile launches, with simulated casualties in the fire control and launch systems. The simulated fires were (mostly) in the missile and forward compartments. On my second Trident, the USS Ohio, I was a drill monitor and enjoyed setting up and operating the simulations. For example, a megaphone with 125 psi air blown into it for sound effects, and someone else waving white sheets for a steam leak.
Crew morale makes or breaks the success of any inspection. All the training in the world isn’t enough by itself to get excellent marks. A happy crew just tries harder, both for themselves and to please the Captain. On the USS Michigan we always got top marks.
My next great skipper was the man who relieved Captain Herrera in 1990, Captain Neil Patrick Walsh. He was a taller version of the actor Michael Moriarty. Captain Walsh was not loud: I never once heard him raise his voice. I was his collateral duty Public Affairs Officer, so I got a chance to see a side of him most of the crew didn’t.
We gave tours to lots of VIP’s including Congressmen, Senators, business executives, Jim Zorn of the Seahawks, and an Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding. After the tour (which never included the engine room), the group would gather in the wardroom for coffee and a talk by the Captain. He was always asked what his job was, and he would tell them he was the “lofty thoughts officer.” I can tell you he meant it. He absolutely was not a micromanager. He told the VIP’s that he gave the crews the tools they needed to do their jobs and trusted them to do it. And it worked. The crew loved him and we did our best to please him, going out of our way to notice and correct little deficiencies that would have been overlooked had the crew been unhappy, and possibly leading to a material failure if enough accumulated.
Now let me talk about a CO who made the crew miserable. He was a micromanager of the Jedi Master degree. He looked at every little detail, and “wire guided” the crew. We hated it. Submariners are an intelligent lot—even our cooks can read—and we resented the micromanagement greatly. If this were his only flaw we could have overlooked it, but compared to some other things was pretty mild by comparison.
He was also a shouter, but never apologised that I can recall. He was highly critical. One particular 35 day refit was harder than usual with a drydocking and major maintenance. On the way to the dive point, he got on the 1MC and told the crew that the boat looked dirty and we would have to get it fixed right away. The entire control room party was dead silent for a long time after he went his stateroom, and the tension was thick. The ORSE drills started the next day, without any rest after a ballbuster refit.
He held the record for the most Non-Judicial Punishments (Captain’s Mast) of any other CO in Group Nine: in fact, he had more than most other 15 crews of Group Nine put together. On most boats, lower level infractions by enlisted crewmembers were corrected by the Chief Petty Officers, but this particular CO wanted to do it himself. More than once I have seen the Chief of the Boat back in the engine room sitting between the main engines with his head in his hands. The COB is supposed to be the go-between with the crew and CO, but this particular COB served mostly as a shit filter. Which got clogged often. I felt sorry for the man.
I don’t recall that we got excellent marks on ORSE and TRE.
The next great leader is my father, Donald Ellsworth Andrews. He too served in the Navy, as Machinist’s Mate aboard the USS General William Mitchell (AP-114) during the Korean War. He made 28 Pacific crossings. I was named for his best friend, James (Jim) DeSpain and as a result of seeing his many high-def pics of Navy, I decided at age seven to join the Navy when I grew up.
A habit I learned from him was duty, which is good, but also an overdeveloped sense of duty. Which is not good, at least as far as the family is concerned. He ended up in administration instead of teaching when I was about 12, and stayed in those kinds of positions until he finally retired from work in the early 90’s. He did not go to sea when I was a child. But he did spend long hours in the office, dedicated to the success of the organisations he worked for. They all succeeded. In 1976, he was hired as Headmaster of Toledo Christian School, which at that time was K-2, with 30 students in the basement of Toledo Gospel Tabernacle, part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Years later, when he finally left that job on doctor’s orders, it was K-12 with 700 students on a campus that had been (before the asteroid strike of Vatican 2) a Catholic seminary.
I did not see a lot of him during the week growing up. It was a pattern that I would repeat with my own family, especially when I was assigned to recruiting duty in Fairbanks Alaska in 1999. I felt very keenly the need to put quality men (and women) into the Navy, and worried about making goal all the time. Including when I woke up in the middle of the night. I worked six days a week, quite often, with 10 and 12-hour days not unusual. I made goal most of the time, but my family suffered from lack of my presence. In retrospect, I should have been in the office, or out in the schools during the posted hours of operation on the station door, and spent the rest of the time with the family. My stress would have been reduced and I probably would have actually put more folks into the Navy as a result.
In 2004, after retiring from the Navy, I returned to Alaska (without the family) and got into Federal Civil Service in September of that year. In my effort to provide a good and secure living for my family, I did not leave Alaska until I finally got work at Fort Lewis in 2007. I did apply for more than two dozen jobs at the military bases in the Puget Sound, but I hung on until I got another civil service job. My family suffered greatly during this time, with much disorder, some of which I only learned of only recently.
Men, you are the commanding officers of your crew – your family. Your wife is your executive officer. But unlike in the Navy, where there are multiple layers above the commanding officer of a vessel before getting to POTUS, in the family it is the father, and then the Father. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that is. You (and me) are responsible to Him for our families and at yours and my Particular Judgement will have to account for what we have failed to do. I know I will have a lot to account for. I have failed my family in many ways, mostly by being selfish and putting my job and interests above their needs. I did not have to put in so many hours. I did not have to take up a time consuming hobby like woodworking, as good as it is of itself, and spend so much time in the shop building furniture. I did not have to go to Alaska in 2004. I could have found work close to home. But I didn’t. My family has disorder in it today as a result of my failures. Both wife and all five of my grown children, in varying degrees (and now some grandchildren) have problems because of me. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
You set the example for your children. They are watching you very closely, whether you realise it or not. They notice your priorities. They notice how you treat their mother. They see how you interact with others when you are dealing with store clerks and others in public. Most importantly, they notice what importance you put on prayer, Mass attendance and going to Confession. If you are lukewarm in this, so will they be. If you are zealous and serious about it, so will they. As important as the mother is in the home, it is the father who (just like the commanding officer of a Navy vessel) sets the tone in the home, and determines crew morale. And morals. Think about this very carefully the next time you do an examination of conscience. Daily, right? Ask yourself if you have been slacking in any of the important things regarding the Faith. If so, make a good confession to your priest, and make whatever changes you need to be the best father (and husband) you can be. They are counting on you.
I have been a Catholic since entering the Church in 2012. I used to be a big political junkie and saw Ann Barnhardt’s YouTube of burning the Koran in 2011. She had some of the bad parts, like about killing Christians and Jews, and something about little boys, bookmarked with raw bacon. She read the passages, set the bookmark aside, tore out the page, put it in a one-gallon Pyrex lab beaker and lit it with a BBQ lighter. Repeat process. On her website, she gave very detailed turn-by-turn directions to her home in Lonetree, Colorado and invited Haji to show up. She said she had some new ammo to try out. She is still alive and writing today. So much for Benghazi.
I started reading her blog, and while there was plenty there about markets (she had been a cattle commodity broker) and politics, there was also a lot about the Catholic Faith. I had never heard of the Real Presence before in my life. She also talked about Authority and Apostolic Succession. She gave a caveat, though. She said that to find authentic Catholicism, you must find a parish that that celebrated the Tridentine Latin Mass. I did just that. Our Lady Star of the Sea in Bremerton had it twice monthly. My first Mass ever was in November of ’11, began attending Mass earnestly in March of the next year and read my way into the Church, being Confirmed on the Feast of Saint Jerome.
Since becoming Catholic I have been very diligent about attending Mass and learning and saying prayers, like the Rosary, first in English and then in Latin. I discovered the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary when I moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2015 and have been pretty regular about this too. Morning offering and the three Ave’s morning and night for protection from mortal sin. And going to Confession, although not as often as I should have. All this would fall under the rough category of “Vocal Prayer.” It is very good and praiseworthy, but it keeps my boat – me – close to the surface.
When the storm comes, and it does, if the boat is at periscope depth, is possible to “broach” and be visible to the evil Soviet spy satellites. It can be difficult to get the boat back under, and often requires bringing a lot of extra weight on board – water ballast – which once you break surface tension can cause you to drop quickly into the depths. The one time I broached the boat as Diving Officer of the Watch I had flooded on too much into the Hovering System and down we went. I asked for a Standard Bell, which the Officer of the Deck granted, but we still were sinking. The Captain calmly ordered the Chief of the Watch to conduct a three-second normal blow of the main ballast tanks. It stopped downward descent, and we managed to not broach again, venting the MBT’s as soon as downward acceleration stopped. The skipper didn’t say a word to me but I learned a valuable lesson. Ask for all help when needed. Don’t be afraid to ask. This applies to prayer much more so than keeping proper depth control of a submarine. God has dump truck loads of Grace to give us – but we must ask.
So, how does submarine depth control relate to us?
Imperfect analogy here, as Up is normally Good and Down is normally Bad. But it works. The storm is temptation. Whatever that may be. The world, the flesh and the devil take on many forms to draw us away from Grace. If we are close to the surface, and we are not paying attention – and it takes intense concentration in a storm as DOOW to avoid broaching – we can fall into mortal sin – and broach the boat. We are now exposed more directly to the devil and he can tempt us even further, to the point where we may find we prefer the surface and the tossing of the waves of temptation and sin. The problem of this is that not only are you putting yourself at risk of Hell, but your crew – your family that is – is getting pretty beat up by the storm. Because your sin, if you have wife and children, directly affect them.
So, how to put a down angle on the boat and drive away from the tossing waves of temptation? Meditation, otherwise known as Mental Prayer. I once needed a place to stay, and a kind young man offered me a room for a week, and I learned some extremely valuable lessons from him. I saw first off that there is no Venn diagram overlap between Knowledge and Wisdom. As a 62-year-old Navy vet with lots of life experiences, I know a lot of things that he doesn’t. However, he at the ripe young age of 28 is wiser than I. In fact in the book of Wisdom Chapter 4, verse 8, it says “For venerable old age is not that of a long time, nor counted by the number of years, but the understanding of a man is grey hairs.”
My friend told me about Mental Prayer, and sent me a link to some writings by Saint Alfonsus that discuss it in detail. I printed it out and read over it several times carefully. The Saint tells us that Mental Prayer is necessary for Salvation. Think about that for a moment. Necessary for Salvation. He says that without mental prayer, the soul is without light. He also says that it disposes the heart to the practice of virtues, and goes on to say that without meditation there is not the strength to resist the temptations of our enemies, and to practise the virtues of the Gospel. Another thing this amazing Saint says it that Mental Prayer is “indispensable” in order to obtain perfection. As we are commanded by God to do just that, this is a tool that we must employ.
Something else my friend said to me is the value of Adoration. Because of my life circumstances in the past month I have had opportunity to not only attend Daily Mass often, but also spend time with Our Lord in the Adoration Chapel. Guys, if you are not already doing this, don’t waste any more time in not doing so. Aside from attending Mass, it is the most valuable thing you can do with your time, more important than your hobbies, your job and even your family. Because if you spend sincere time with Him, He will reward you with an outpouring of Grace like you cannot imagine. I have experienced that myself in the time since we last met for pipes and pints. So much Grace that if it were hailstones I would need a hardhat.
I will close by saying that if you are hanging on to any little thing in the corner of your heart that you claim as your own, get rid of it! Let Our Lord have every single compartment in your heart. He will reward your loyalty to Him. Daily offer your will to His Will. Ask him to drive your boat, not you. He is a much better driver.
Our author is ETC(SS) (Ret) James M Andrews.
Buy my new book and own your enemies: Everything You Believe Is Wrong.
Subscribe or donate to support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card or PayPal click here