Monday, May 4, 2009

The Troll That Lived Under the Bridge

Traditionally, ships the size of destroyers and cruiser had two cabins for the Captain. One was a large cabin that had a nice bedroom, a sitting/dining room/office, a head with a shower, and a galley. This was known as the "in port cabin". The other cabin was a lot smaller; it had a bunk with a small closet and a tiny head. That was the "at-sea" cabin. The at-sea cabin was usually immediately behind the Bridge, the door often opened onto a passageway that had a ladder which went down to CIC. The Captain slept there when the ship was at sea so that he could quickly get to the Bridge. On ships with dial telephone systems, his phone rang in the at-sea cabin, the in-port cabin and next to his chair on the starboard forward corner of the Bridge.

That was not the case on the Knox class (1052) frigates. The Captain's cabin was forward of CIC, next to a four-man berthing compartment for very junior officers (the "JO Locker", later sometimes used for berthing female officers, as it had its own head) and under the Bridge. There was a voice tube that ran from the Captain's rack to just in front of the helm station. If the OOD blocked it with his head, what the Captain said was pretty secure.

The Captain's rack on a 1052 was strange. It was the only rack that folded up, like a top Pullman berth and when it did so, it converted into a couch. Every other rack on the ship was laid out on a fore-and-aft axis, so when the ship rolled, it was like being rocked. The Captain's rack was laid out athwartships, so when the ship rolled, the captain was pitched either with his head down or his feet down. It had to be very uncomfortable in any kind of heavy sea.

There were two ends of the spectrum of how captains led: The Coach and the Screamer. The Coach maintained a cool demeanor and when you screwed up, you felt more ashamed of letting the Coach down than you did about what you had done (or failed to do). A good coach inspired his crew to always do better, to strive for perfection, to be professional in all things.

The Screamer, on the other hand, ran his command by a reign of terror. A true screamer had no compunction about publicly humiliating anyone in his command, from the XO on down. His only tool was fear. The danger to the Screamer was that because his crew only feared him, they didn't respect him, and if someone saw a cost-free way to fuck him over, he would.

Serving about a ship captained by a screamer was like being in Hell, only without the smell of burning brimstone. You might have worked for a screamer in a civilian job, but at the end of the day, you got to go home. On a ship, especially a deployed ship, you were trapped. (The title of this post comes from the Knox-class, where a screamer captain would emerge from his cabin under the Bridge and verbally eviscerate someone.)

Paradoxically, screamers were good for re-enlistment statistics, as sailors would re-enlist early if they could get orders to another command. Officers did not have that option. I had a rule of thumb that if a first-tour junior officer spent more than a year on a ship with a screamer, you could forget about that officer ever going back to sea as a department head. If, on the other hand, that junior officer spent his or her first tour on a ship with a captain who acted as a coach and mentor, the young officer would probably be good for at least one more full sea tour.

I knew of one ship that had a coach of a captain; the ship and her crew just seemed to do everything effortlessly. Supposedly the captain would regularly tell his wardroom of young ensigns and JGs that "the rest of the navy is not like this ship." (Sad to say, he was probably right.)

This captain, on the other hand, was a screamer. There was one exercise in which that particular screamer, in a four hour watch cycle, kicked so many OODs off the Bridge by ordering each one to "call your relief", that the original OOD ended up finishing up his watch. It was really pitiful to see strong men quaking in fear of such a captain, for at sea, there was no escaping a screamer.

Real screamers could drive their XOs into full-blown alcoholism. The junior officers might amuse themselves by devising elaborate schemes to kill him. The sailors would try to figure out ways to torment him,if they did not go UA. It was like living though a toxic combination of the Caine Mutiny (without the mutiny) and Mister Roberts (without Henry Fonda).

There could be real camaraderie on a ship with a screamer, but it was borne of everyone sticking together in order to survive. On ships with sound-powered phone systems and screamer captains, it was not unheard of at sea for a sailor to wander by one of the deserted Quarterdeck stations, select the Captain's cabin on the station dial and then growl the shit out of the Captain's phone at 0300. The same trick was even easier on a dial-phone system, as the call could be placed from anywhere on the ship.

You might have a "Phantom Shitter", someone who would sneak into the Captain's cabin and take a dump on his desk. Smearing a thin film of black grease on the Captain's telephone to give him a black ear or on his binoculars to give him "raccoon eyes" was another trick. More evil was "dirty dicking" his coffee cup. Truly evil was coming up with enough dirt to warrant dropping a dime to the squadron or to a congressman, but that was inherently dangerous because if things were so bad as to warrant firing the captain, other people's heads would roll.

The change of command for a ship with a departing captain who was a screamer could be one for the books. It was not unheard of for, when the outgoing captain signaled that command had been handed over by saying "I stand relieved", the crew would start loudly cheering.

The unofficial motto of the Surface Warfare community was "We Eat Our Young" and the screamers were a manifestation of that. As long as the screamers delivered, as long as their ships got underway and met their commitments, the screamers were tolerated, but only up to a point. The few really vicious screamers that I knew of did not screen for a major command.

(Extra reading: The Arnheiter Affair)

4 comments:

PhysioProf said...

I wonder why people ever get the idea that leading through fear is a good idea?

Comrade E.B. Misfit said...

From Josef Stalin, maybe? I just knew far too many officers and chiefs who thought that fear was the best way to motivate people.

I figured that while fear might have its place as a tool, it was one best used very sparingly.

Jimh. said...

I am almost finished reading the Arnheiter Affair...some of ths stuff seems directly from the Caine Mutiny. The crew was right to wonder about the ball bearings! JEEZ! Talk about waging his own personal war...as long as noone was shooting at him! Thanks EB for the reading suggestion.

Scott said...

'four-man berthing compartment for very junior officers'

Originally commodore's cabin.