SOMETIMES THE BREAKS COME OUR WAY. 3 15 10
Lt/Cmdr. Robert E. Gardner (‘Reg’) – the ‘E’ was for Evelyn, which was his mother’s nee name and she’d wanted to keep it alive, but very few people ever found that out because he’d learned early on how to have ‘accidents’ with ink or coffee or some other deep staining liquids whenever any papers of his got to be left unattended although, of course, he never got the chance to doctor his Naval Service Records – got ‘passed over’ for promotion to full Commander and that meant that the end of his Naval career was upon him and that he’d soon be forced to leave the service that he loved.
Ever since he’d been a youth he’d wanted to go to sea – he secretly cherished the goal of becoming the captain of one of the modern destroyers that are as big as the cruisers of World War 2 were and can do dozens of things that they couldn’t have dreamed of doing – but even as a freshman in high school he knew that his country’s Naval Academy was way out of his league so he’d worked hard and he eventually got himself a mechanical engineering degree from his State College and then he applied to the Navy.
After finishing the entrance indoctrination and assessment courses – he’d put a great deal of effort into preparing for his interview with the Psychologist/Placement Officer so as to be allowed to become a deck officer and not automatically assigned to the Engineering Dept. because of his degree – he was sent to the Naval College to learn which fork to use and for an introduction to modern warfare tactics and armaments and, of course, a whole lot more, and was eventually assigned as a sub-lieutenant on an aircraft carrier.
He wanted to be on destroyers or frigates but he knew better than to offer the slightest protest and he also had the sense to put up with, as good naturally as was possible for him, the jibes in the wardroom from men who knew about his engineering degree.
He almost got reconciled with not being on one of the sleek escorts that were always in view from the bridge whenever they were at sea because the immense power of the carrier was awe inspiring and he could easily temporarily placate his innermost longings by reminding himself that the escorts were there to serve the carrier just like the lowly and plodding supply ships and the oil and high-octane tankers bringing up the rear were.
Sub-lieutenants on a carrier do not carry much weight so he kept a low profile and tried to learn all that he could. If any of the senior officers remembered anything about him at all after he’d moved on it was only that he was always on time and always smartly dressed and was eager to please and quick to carry out an order. In other words – up to standard.
After a second tour on a carrier he was sent back to his major base for more training and after that he spent a year of purgatory on a shore station where the only two good things that he could remember about the place was that he got married while there and was made lieutenant. Having two rings on his sleeve got him some respect at last and having someone to go home to made the onerous shore station duties a little less than soul destroying.
He didn’t want to be assigned to another ‘concrete battleship’ ever nor to another carrier so he got the bright idea of asking to be sent on an introductory course at an OEM’s factory, where they were developing a promising self-loading quick-firing four inch gun, because he’d found out that they were mostly needed on frigates and destroyers. It had worked out just as he’d hoped it would, afterwards he figured that it had been far too easy, and he was given a commission to a frigate that was still in the dry dock of an east coast shipyard.
He was made Gunnery Officer and when, in trials, the gun turned out to be all that had been promised his name became associated with it and got to be known in the right circles.
He cared little about such things but what he did appreciate was being given accelerated promotion to Lieutenant Commander, after two ‘tours’ on the ship, and because of that, and because of a glowing assessment by his Captain and First Lieutenant regarding his general sea going abilities, he was offered the post of First Lieutenant on a similar frigate when it was commissioned a few years later.
The duties of a First Lieutenant, even when his ship is tied up at the jetty, are never-ending but he soldiered on through them, as it were, with never a complaint because when they went to sea he came into his true element. He loved the ship so much that his only regret as they were leaving harbor each time was that he couldn’t be on shore too to watch it going out to sea.
By being very good at his job he made his Captain’s life much easier and when they paid the ship off he, the Captain, pulled a whole lot of strings to have Reg ear marked to be his First Lieutenant on his next sea going assignment although that didn’t happen for three long and frustrating years during which he was a training instructor shore-side. The only good things he could recall about that time was that his two children had been born then.
His old Captain got made a full four-ringer in the interim and he was given command of an eight thousand ton destroyer that was only on its second commission and he took Reg with him as his First Lieutenant, as promised, for which he was very grateful indeed.
By tradition First Lieutenants only keep one watch – the middle one, which is from midnight to four a.m. – and merely keeping station in a fleet, no matter about when they’d been ordered to go somewhere on their own for some reason, made Reg’s heart sing and kept a permanent smile on his face which he had to be careful to not show to anyone who was on the bridge with him because they, mostly, would have much preferred to be tied up to a nice solid jetty where they could get shore leave or, secondly, in their bunks.
His captain knew the right people and had long been earmarked for higher things and, sure enough, he was made Naval Attaché to a large foreign embassy when his commission had ended. Because of that their team was broken up but he saw to it that Reg never lacked for offers to be the First Lieutenant on a series of destroyers and frigates.
The Navy has long had a policy about officers ‘moving up or moving out’ and although Reg continued to get ‘highly recommended’ annual reports from his Commanding Officers none of them mentioned ‘command potential’ – possibly because it wouldn’t be in each of his succeeding Captains’ best interests in that they all wanted him to be around and available to serve with them in future and thus make their lives much easier again – and the result of that was that on the final three times that Reg was considered by a board for promotion – the evaluations are done on a fixed interval basis from the beginning of each man’s career and then, after differing times following each promotion in rank, every year after that until his next promotion but if he’s passed over three years in a row he stops being eligible and is discharged from the service at the end of his current commission – his lack of a ‘command potential’ rating was the directing factor that got him to be passed over each time.
At that time the country was enjoying a relatively peaceful era, and therefore fewer ships had to be manned, and so that didn’t help his case and neither did having ‘Evelyn’ for a middle name with officers who didn’t know him personally.
After finding out that he’d been passed over for the third and last time Reg knew that he’d have to retire when his current ship was paid off.
He was serving on a fast frigate, it was one of fourteen escort ships of a carrier force, and one day they were at sea carrying out various exercises dreamed up by the Admiral and, having finished one of them at around 2030 the night before, his ship then had to simply keep station with a fifteen thousand ton cruiser that was a quarter of a mile off their starboard bow.
The cruiser was searching the air and the water and the frigate was searching the water and the air as is standard procedure. They were both well over on the western side of the fleet that was steaming northeast and because there was some nasty shoaling ground, well marked on all of their maps, just a mile or so off to their north the frigate had been stationed closest to it because of her shallower draft.
At exactly 0800 the Admiral sent out an ‘All Captains Report On Board Flag’ signal and although Reg’s Captain figured it was given because the exercise that the whole fleet had gone through the night before hadn’t gone well enough in the Admiral’s opinion – and he was making them all pay for it given the fact that there was a heavy sea running – Reg had been made cynical enough by the despondency generated by his ever-closer and ever-looming mandatory retirement date to think that it had been simply a whim of the Admiral’s who wanted to do it because he could and had probably dreamed up another evolution to consider for later that day to partially cover up his self-indulgent bloody-mindedness.
Reg’s Captain was the junior one so they were last to go alongside the carrier and rig the cables needed to pass him over in a swaying, swinging boson’s chair.
When that was done they recovered their rig and then Reg sheered away to go back to his station.
He was, naturally, on the bridge later that forenoon and the weather took a sudden turn for the worse and the wind speed increased from ‘fresh’ to ‘gale’ force which made the Admiral send an ‘all ships’ signal that told them that there would be no recovery of Captains until the weather had modified and that all ships were to double the set distances between them. The news pleased Reg a great deal – and all of the other First Lieutenants – and he relished being in command.
Just before the first dog watch – that is: coming up to four o’clock in the afternoon – he was alarmed to see the cruiser ahead of him veer to the north and as he was thinking about how to best react he saw the cruiser raise the signal flag that tells all other ships to ‘Stay Clear Because I’m Not Under Control’ and a few seconds later he was told over the bridge loudspeaker that the cruiser had sent out a general, plain language, radio signal that said that she had lost steering due to malfunctioning supply cables and/or switchgear.
Reg realized two things instantly. One was that the cruiser would go aground in ten or twelve minutes on its curving course if nothing was done and only a little longer than that if its Captain – who, like Reg, was normally its First Lieutenant – resorted to try to steer with his engines because the rough sea and the strong currents and the gale force winds were combining to drive the ship directly towards the shoals. The other thing that he knew was that it would take at least fifteen minutes, and more like twenty, for the cruiser’s crew to run emergency electrical power cables along the upper deck and all the way aft to get the steering motors up and running again.
Reg ordered that the main engines be brought up to full speed and that the gas turbine be started up – it had its own shaft and screw and it was there to give the frigate an extra ten knots when needed to chase a submarine or whatever – and to rig heavy buffer mats along the starboard side and concentrate them up at the bow.
He knew that Standard Operating Procedure was to pass a line to the cruiser and tow its head around to the east but there was no time for such niceties.
He ran full ahead and in two or three minutes he came hard up alongside the cruiser’s bow with his own and he forced hers to turn away from the shoals.
He realized that his gas turbine wouldn’t be needed any more – it only had two functions which were ‘full ahead’ and ‘stop’ – so he ordered it stopped to remove the complication that it presented and then he matched speeds and maneuvered to stay in contact with the bigger ship and physically not allow its rogue tiller and the sea and the wind to direct it into dangerous waters.
It took close to thirty minutes for the cruiser to get its steering motors running again, and thus back under control, but if any two equally sized ships come together in a rolling sea there’s going to be some damage but when one of them is three times as big as the other one there’s going to be a whole lot of it.
Sure enough, everytime that both ships reacted to a wave the lighter frigate got out of synch with the cruiser and on both the upward lifts and on the downward drops a proud cleat on her port side and a fluke of her anchor repeatedly ripped through the frigate’s relatively thin steel plates and opened her side to the sea.
The damage control parties were ready and waiting for every new wound and, luckily, the crews’ messes were affected the most and so there was little heavy equipment in the area that would have blocked them from being able to cope with the inrushing water.
By the time that other ships had taken positions where they could pass a tow rope the cruiser’s repair teams had completed their task and so help was no longer needed.
When the crisis was over and the whole fleet was back on station – Reg had already supervised the positioning of heavy timbers to shore up the ship’s torn side and the rigging of canvasses to keep the sea out – he sent a preliminary damage report to the Admiral, and to his captain, and in it he told them that the damage wasn’t bad enough to force the frigate to return to base for repairs.
The next day the wind died down enough to allow all the Captains to be recovered and after that the fleet continued its exercises and Reg had to give up many of his ‘off duty’ hours to write out a full report.
Whenever there’s an accident at sea a naval enquiry is set into motion and Reg was told that he’d have to appear before one three days after they all got back to base.
The shore-side estimators had swarmed over the ship as soon as it was secured in a dry dock and, as is their wont, they all tended to make a meal out of it. If a single wire had so much as a nick in it’s insulating sheath they recommended that the entire apparatus be rewired and they sometimes tried to get the piece of equipment replaced too. The full list of work required was long and formidable and went from replacing bunks and lockers and tables and ventilation troughing and fans to new de-gaussing cables and the replacement of the entire control system of a gun mount – just in case. The estimate totaled over a million dollars and who would dare to say no to any of it?
Reg showed up at the enquiry with his report and his charts and the members of the Board had their own copies of both – when they’d first read them and knew what might have happened they all, being seagoing sailors from way back, blanched and wanted to dismiss the whole thing as an unavoidable accident at sea but a million dollars is a large sum and someone had to be made responsible and, clearly, that someone was Reg.
The Admiral sent an aide to give the members of the enquiry copies of his log of the exercises that he’d ordered and they showed that his, “All Captains Report On Board Flag” signal was supposed to have been the beginning of another series of them that would have given the second-in-commands of all ships several tricky tests but the sudden increase in the wind speed had forced him to cancel everything. He added that Reg had reacted well to the emergency and had displayed “good seamanship” but all the members of the enquiry knew that already from his career records and so it didn’t help his case one way or the other.
The enquiry’s senior officer’s hands were tied and so he mumbled something about the more prudent course would have been to try to pass a towrope to the cruiser and in his final summary he both praised and ‘admonished’ Reg!
One of the rear-admirals who was on the scene when the damage had been inflicted – he was the Commanding Officer of the cruiser squadron and, of course, he’d been kept informed all along as to what was happening to the cruiser that had lost its steering – had been one of Reg’s old captains ten years earlier and, when the enquiry was over and done with, he read the various reports and he looked up Reg’s service records and was horrified to see that he was still a lieutenant-commander and that he’d been passed over for promotion in the critical last three reviews and he well knew that the navy couldn’t afford to lose such a good man so he asked to be allowed to be the one to decide what further action should be taken in the case.
Given the go-ahead, he decided that Reg’s punishment was to lose one year’s seniority, which meant that he’d have another shot at the evaluation board, and he added a comment to his service records so that at their next meeting its members would get to see that Reg not only had good ‘command potential’ but had ‘proven command capability’ and he added a personal note to the effect that he, the rear-admiral, trusted that they’d “See to it that an extra half stripe is awarded to him which will promote him to the rank of ‘Commander’ and thus make that fact obvious to all.”