Tuesday, December 29, 2009


It is fair to say that drug use was very common in the Navy in the 1970s. The only way to nail someone for drug use then was to catch them possessing drugs. Normally, that happened when some idiot was smoking grass in a place where the odor was detected.

Ventilation fan rooms were a common place to smoke weed, but some fools did not bother to check to see where the fan output went. One classic case was a sailor who was smoking pot in a fanroom which fed air to the Captain's cabin. One sailor made sure that the fanroom he used exhausted to the outside of the ship; it was his bad luck that the exhaust outlet was over a refueling station and the ship was refueling alongside an AO at the time, bathing the ensign in charge of the refueling station, the BM1 who was really in change, and the twenty or so linehandlers with the sweet smell of pot smoke.

One funny one was when two sailors were smoking pot in the ship's vehicle; the next user was the ship's master-at-arms, who then obtained the permission of the Command Duty Officer to search the two sailors and their lockers. Another one was when two signalmen, one on each ship, made a deal for some hash by using semaphore signals; they didn't know that an officer on one of the ships, who could read semaphore, read the conversation. The purchasing sailor was met at the quarterdeck by the master-at-arms.

Court-martials on smaller ships were a real pain in the ass to conduct. They could only be held in port and they were a major drain on the ship as it took a considerable amount of time to go from beginning to end. As a result, most disciplinary problems were handled at Captain's Mast, otherwise known as Non-Judicial Punishment, or NJP. The most that could be done at Captain's Mast was to reduce a sailor by one paygrade, a maximum fine of half a month's pay for two months, and confinement.

Confinement options ranged from a maximum of three days in the brig on bread and water or thirty days in the brig or 45 days restriction to the ship with 45 days of extra duty. Hardly anyone was sent to the brig for other than the three days of bread and water and that was only done when those in the sailor's chain of command thought that he was still reachable. Otherwise, restriction to the ship was awarded, for that that way, the miscreant was still available for duty. Extra duty often tended to involve chipping paint and painting either the weatherdecks or the bilges in the enginerooms and firerooms.

The problem was that once a sailor decided that he liked to smoke pot, you might end up catching him once or twice a year, if that. The hard-core stoners just put up with the punishment, even if it meant that they were sent for repeated cranking tours, for they had no intention of re-enlisting, they lived on the ship and they simply didn't care.

In the early `80s, it all changed. The Navy instituted mandatory urine testing, which was soon nicknamed Operation Golden Flow. Once a year, everyone in the command was urine-tested, including all of the officers. Every so often, maybe once a month or once a quarter, the XO rolled a ten-sided die; everyone whose social security number ended in that digit was immediately mustered for a random piss test. Those who had security duties or high security clearances were subject to an additional piss test each year. The urine sampling was witnessed in order to combat cheating.

For officers and chief petty officers, failing a piss test was grounds for discharge. Petty officers, non-rated seamen and strikers were on a "two strikes" system. Some sailors appealed the discharge order and they were then brought before an administrative discharge review board made of three officers, normally headed by a lieutenant commander. The command was represented by a junior officer, the only attorney present was provided to the accused. Most of the boards took their duties seriously and some sailors did prevail, but the vast majority had their discharge orders confirmed and they were thrown out.

The result was, over time, drug usage in the Navy was greatly reduced. There were a lot fewer NJPs (and fewer extra-duty men available for dirty jobs).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Worst Teaching Job in the Surface Navy

That was being an instructor at Department Head School.

Department Head School, in Newport, RI, was a 20 week school for senior lieutenants. It was the only school in the surface navy that was considered to be a permanent change of duty station for the students, which meant that the Navy moved the families. (All other schools were temporary duty; the students stayed in the BOQ and the families stayed home.) Department Head School, formerly known as Destroyer School, was even longer in the 1970s, but then they stopped teaching everyone calculus, Morse code and semaphore signals.

Much of the school was the Tactical Action Officer course, where the students had to learn everything about the US and Soviet navy's warships. You had to know the difference between a Brooke and Garcia FF and a Krivak and a Kashin, as well as all of the weapon systems in both navies. It was important stuff, for as a TAO, you wouldn't have the time to look it up in a book when you got the word that a flock of Badgers were inbound or someone had detected a Vampire. There were lessons in ASW, AAW, ASUW, landing force operations, navigation refreshers and basic engineering concepts.

Once everyone had their orders, the classes would split into job specifics: Operations, Weapons, Steam Engineering, Diesel Engineering and Gas-Turbine Engineering. Most of the steam engineers-to-be also went to Philadelphia for advanced fire-fighting and to the Great Lakes Training Center for "hot-plant" classes (they had working engineering plants in buildings, the engine shafts drove huge water brakes). Diesel and twidget gas-turbine engineers had their own hot plants, though I've forgotten where they were located.

What made the school the worst to teach is no matter what subject the particular class was about, there was almost always one student in the classroom who was certain to know far more about the subject than the instructor. There was always one student who had lived that subject as a division officer for two or three years. And if the instructor was way off base on the material, he or she could expect to get hammered.

One time, a chief petty officer was teaching a class on corrosion control and when he turned to cathodic protection systems, he said the purpose of cathodic protection was "to keep the cathods off the ship." One student warned him that he could expect to see that answer on test papers, but the chief stuck to it. And sure enough, out of the 25 students in the class, 22 gave that answer on the exam. The chief had to give them all credit and the commander who ran the instruction staff had a cow over it.