When the US Navy commissions an officer, the (usually) young man or woman instantly acquires a significant load of both privilege and responsibility. At the moment the gold stripe or bar is fastened to the uniform of the midshipman or cadet, the rank of Ensign becomes a reality. Although years of very specific and formal training will help the new officer function, there is a lot to learn before he or she becomes a proficient naval officer. The event is similar to a new born foal taking its first steps; the spindly young horse can walk, but with a lot of uncertainty for sure. With a little experience, both will demonstrate increasing confidence.
My first task upon being so commissioned was to travel to San Diego for security clearance and training, then on to Pearl Harbor, to meet the ship to which I would become intimately connected, the USS Serrano (AGS-24).
She was undergoing a major overhaul when I arrived in Hawaii. The 200 ft long ship, originally designed to tow damaged battleships across the ocean, was sitting high and dry on a marine railway without power, spewing sandblasting dust and receiving modern electronic equipment with the help of dozens of shipyard workers. She had a stellar workhorse record from both WWII and the Korean War, but had languished in mothballs near San Francisco for a decade before coming back to life. Serrano had her enormous winch removed from the fantail and was converted to an oceanographic research and geodetic survey vessel. My job was to supervise the installation of new radios and encryption devices. I was immersed in the tropical heat and dusty noise for 8 hrs each day, after which my time was my own. To seek cooler sea breezes and quiet solitude, I spent many afternoons exploring the large Pearl Harbor Naval Base.
Oahu and Pearl Harbor were fascinating to me. The history from WWII had always intrigued me. As a kid, I had watched countless videos of the 1941 attack on the US fleet there on “Newsreels” in pubic movie theaters, the only source of news and documentary before television assumed that role. To walk along Ford Island after work each day and imagine the battleships arrayed there with their valiant crews fighting to save them was inspirational. Relics from that attack were still to be found near the small buildings and rural setting across the harbor from the shipyard. The USS Arizona, now a sacred grave for over 1000 US Navy sailors, was still seeping a small stream of oil drops from her tanks last refilled in 1941. Standing above the deck of this battleship, still visible under the spot where she was sunk in shallow water, would bring out emotions of many kinds to anyone who visited her. The Arizona had been declared a national memorial site when I was in high school. Elvis Presley held a famous benefit concert to help fund the visitor site 3 years later, the year I became a US Navy Midshipman.
The afternoons hiking around Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard were humbling. The single gold bar on my collar drew salutes from sailors as we randomly passed. They were often men older than I, and more experienced. I wondered if any of them had been there in Hawaii that horrific day, 25 years earlier. I studied ships tied up at the various docks. There were both nuclear and diesel submarines visible in open dry docks. I saw Fletcher Class destroyers, supply ships and old landing craft that had seen naval warfare first hand still performing an active service of some kind. There were lesser known markers on the base, on adjoining Hickam AFB, and in the mountains, cities, beaches on all four corners of Oahu. That summer and fall showed me a new, first-hand, deep respect for the uniform I was now wearing every day. My earlier officer training and midshipman cruises had inserted me into a significant class of historical figures. Yes, I still lacked the real sea experience widely associated with naval officers across the centuries, but that season of steeping myself in the war history of Pearl Harbor made a connection. It finished my qualification process.
I was ready.
The Serrano came out of dry dock that fall. Over the next couple of months she passed her sea trials with flying colors and crossed 5000 miles to the Western Pacific. Christmas Day found her in Cam Rahn Bay working a full 18 hours collecting data and bottom samples.
Serrano anchored/weighed anchor 73 times that Christmas Day, a US Navy record.
Experience, by definition, comes in many forms. Standing a mid watch while underway meant the relieving officer was to come on the bridge 15 minutes before midnight to familiarize himself with the operational situation before taking charge. One routine night, in clear weather operating close to the South Vietnamese coast, I arrived on the bridge to find the officer of the deck I was about to relieve embarrassed, rubbing his eyes and complaining about lost night vision. It turned out he had missed a voice radio request from a US Navy P2V patrol craft to identify the ship. The aircraft had a multi-million candlepower search light designed to illuminate submarines mounted on its wingtip, and its crew energized it to study what to them was an odd-looking, unidentified ship operating close-in to shore.
In an unrelated incident, it was my turn to be embarrassed when I navigated the ship alongside, and within a few feet of, a large, fast-moving car ferry on a dark Puget Sound near Seattle. The ferry had been traveling west to east, across our path as we departed the pier, steaming in a northerly direction. The radar operator designated it “skunk C” and confirmed my understanding that our ship had the right of way. Moreover, the distance between us was increasing further reducing reason for concern. As the ferry approached its destination north of Seattle, it faded from our sight, far to the right. However, right after we dismissed it as an active water contact, the ferry switched running lights and started back to the west. The reversing of the critically important running lights was a practice I had never heard of. What had been the starboard (green) running light of this contact became the port (red) running light as the ferry captain started his westerly run back to Bremerton where it had originated.
Most ships turn around to reverse course but not ferries. They back up. What had been the stern on Skunk Charlie going east now was the bow going west. It reversed direction without turning. Although neither the visual appearance nor the radar image of that ship changed, the interpretation of the marine rules-of-the-road certainly did. While we had enjoyed the right-of-way “privileged” position during the hour Skunk Charlie was on its eastbound leg, we became the “burdened” vessel as soon as it change running lights. Skunk Charlie instantly changed status from being burdened to being the legally privileged compared to our ship.
Drivers know how pedestrians can gain right-of-way status over approaching cars by stepping into a crosswalk. As a driver cruising safely along, you see a clear crosswalk ahead. Then suddenly a person who had been a non-yield issue while walking along on the sidewalk, suddenly turns ninety degrees, and in one motion steps off the curb, and instantly becomes the privilege user of the crosswalk on the road you both share.
Fortunately my crew and I figured out what was going on in time to turn the ship sharply to starboard just as the ferry came steaming full speed down our port side. Unfortunately, just as all the excitement came to a head, our captain (i.e., my boss) was coincidentally climbing the bridge ladder for his routine after-dinner check on “how things were going.” Halfway up the ladder the “thing” he found was an eyeball to eyeball perspective with the civilian evening commuters waving, cheering and loving their rare close-up look at a Navy ship lining the ferry rail about 30 feet away. Needless to say it wasn’t an opportune time to explain my newly learned wisdom about how ferries swap their lights when they’re done swapping cars and people. As he energetically questioned my competence, it seemed better to just let him vent, making sure the whole crew knew how inexperienced their new deck officer was, rather than risk having him view any defensive arguments as insubordination.
There is an odd irony about the privileged and burdened terms used in marine law. All deck officers underway know very well that when facing a collision course at sea, it is a privilege to be burdened and a burden to be privileged. This is because being in the privileged status includes a rigid requirement to maintain course and speed, while the burdened ship is required to alter course and/or speed. Not unlike other situations in life, when we are privileged we carry expectations that reduce our options. Yet when we are burdened, the options to improve the situation are ours to control. So the question ponder is . . . “Would you prefer to be privileged or burdened?”