Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Watch From Hell

One of the cardinal sins in the Navy is being outdoors without wearing a hat (Navy term- “cover”). The only exception is when something is going on that makes it unsafe to wear a cover, such as operating aircraft. If you go out on the weather decks, you wear a cover. The cover worn with the working uniform was a navy-blue ballcap with the ship’s name on it.

This story took place in Djibouti. Djibouti is in the horn of Africa, where the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean meet, a small flyspeck of a place neighbored by Ethiopia and Somalia and controlled, for all intents and purposes, by the French Foreign Legion. Both Somalia and Ethiopia at the time were more-or-less aligned with the Soviet Union, so Djibouti was the only friendly port within a long distance. Because Ethiopia and Somalia had simmering civil wars going on, Djibouti was full of people who were destitute. It was not a very nice or safe place to be. It was such a hardship post that when a Navy ship pulled in, the Americans at the local consulate would come on board and virtually strip the ship’s store of its stock of candybars, pre-recorded cassette tapes (this was in the pre-CD era) and other small consumer goods.

This story also took place in July. July in Djibouti was hot. The water in the harbor was well over 90degF. Ships air-condition their interior spaces with chilled-water heat-exchangers. The heat-exchangers use sea water to carry away the heat and when the sea water coming into the heat-exchangers is already hot, not a lot of extra heat can be carried away. So even though the interior of the ships were air-conditioned, those air-conditioners were barely keeping the ships cool.

So let’s set the Way-Back Machine to July in Djibouti, more than two decades ago. A Navy warship limped into Djibouti with a serious engineering problem. Parts and technicians had to be flown into Djibouti to fix the ship. The ship was there for at least two weeks at a time when no captain would have tarried in port for longer than it took to refuel and load supplies. The few crewmen who went ashore came back with stories of how bleak and nasty the city was. As a result, the ship’s company stayed on board and did things such as write letters home and catch up on their sleep.

The time is 1400 at the peak of the day’s heat. A young ensign, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was the OOD in port, also known as the Quarterdeck Watch Officer. From this young lad’s vantage point, you could see two French warships each the size of an American destroyer escort from the Second World War, a dumpster with a couple of emaciated dogs sleeping in the shade and one local man, wearing only a sarong, sharing the shade with the dogs. The man was there to sell t-shirts and souvenirs to the few sailors who were going ashore. The air was still, oppressively so.

A mess cook came up to the Quarterdeck with a dripping bag of garbage from the noon meal, which he intended to throw into the dumpster. He had forgotten his ballcap. The OOD didn’t want the mess cook to carry that dripping bag of garbage back down through the ship so the mess cook could get a cover, nor did he want to have the mss cook leave the bag of garbage on the Quarterdeck. So the OOD let him go off the ship to the dumpster sans cover.

That was when the Captain and the XO appeared on the Quarterdeck. They had a social engagement ashore. The Captain saw the bare-headed mess cook on the pier and promptly began to royally chew the ass of the unfortunate ensign with an obscenity-laced tirade. Peppered throughout the tirade were comments such as “hard to believe that you fucking graduated from the fucking Naval Academy.” The Captain ended his tirade with “you are on watch and you will remain on watch until my return.”

And so began the Watch From Hell. The other young officers on the ship took turns bringing him cool drinks. Every few hours, one of his roommates from the JO Locker (where the male junior officers slept) would bring him a fresh shirt, as the uniform of the day was Summer Whites. The OOD was relieved for the evening meal by the Chief Petty Officer who would have stood watch from 1600 to 2000, but other than that and a couple breaks to visit the head (bathroom), the ensign stood his watch. And the next one. And the next one.

The Captain and the XO, both of whom were three sheets to the wind, came back aboard around 0230 that night. When the Captain saw the ensign still standing his watch, he grunted “call your relief” and with that, the Captain stumbled off to his cabin. The ensign sent the messenger to get his relief (who was awake and reading a book in the Wardroom). The watch turnover took maybe 30 seconds and the ensign was on his way for a shower and some sleep.

Of all of the officers on that ship when this story happened, only that young ensign is still on active duty. He is a senior officer. I can only hope he has treated his young officers with more dignity and consideration than was shown to him.

But one cannot be sure, of course.


physioprof said...

That's a great story! The one thing I'm having a little trouble wrapping my mind around, however, is, given your description of what a shithole Djibouti was, what sort of "social engagement" the captain and XO could have had.

The Earth Bound Misfit said...

Senior officers do have to go to various functions that are mostly diplomatic in nature. Quite a few dignitaries would come on the ship for a meal and those were reciprocated ashore. So they could have had an engagement ashore that didn't involve hookers.

But yes, Djibouti had a reputation as being a real shithole.