Monday, June 13, 2005

Theory v. Practice

This is Post #2 in a series of posts about my father and his Navy stories. Any misuse of military jargon is due to my spotty civilian memory of my father's explanation.

As I've mentioned before, my father was a sonar man during his days in Uncle Sam's Yacht Club. Sonar, you may know, is an acronym for SOund Navigation And Ranging. This means that it emits sound waves through the water which then bounce off of objects and return to the source, where detection gear receives them back and uses the information to determine an object's size, shape, and relative position and speed in relationship to the emitting ship.

Thanks to movies like The Hunt for Red October, we civilians tend to be most familiar with the Detection portion of the equation, mostly because it's the more exciting use, and to a certain extent because the Navigation part has been taken over in modern times by things like GPS. But in my father's day, navigation was an essential role of sonar, especially in harbor. By taking a sonar reading of the relative position and speed of a known fixed object, like a navigation buoy, it is possible to determine the location, heading, and speed of the ship. The process by which this was accomplished in my father’s day was well-established and had a routine to it. The officer on duty whose job was to navigate would call for a reading from the sonar man on his mark. When he said “Mark!” the sonar man would call out the reading, and the officer would plot it on the ship’s charts.

The officer charged with this duty on my father’s destroyer was a young ensign who had been assigned to the ship directly from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, an Ensign E. Ensign E. was what military types refer to as a “Ring-knocker”, that is, a graduate of a military academy who believes in his own inherent superiority just by virtue of his Alma Mater. Ensign E. was the quintessential such individual, regularly showing contempt for the enlisted men under him and treating them with undue harshness, unwilling to learn from his own mistakes, unable to distinguish from his academic training and real life experience. One example of this was his inability to grasp a concept called Advance and Transfer. As explained to me by my father, Advance and Transfer means that, in the days before GPS, when navigational readings and computations occurred at a speed slower than light, the fact that the ship is moving while you’re navigation means that there will always be a slight discrepancy between where you were when you took your readings and where you are when you plot them. What this means in practical terms is that while in a classroom with a set of coordinates provided from a textbook, you can calculate an exact fixed location, on a ship at sea moving over the water, the coordinates will always be an approximation, albeit a highly accurate approximation with a good crew. My father and his fellow sonar men on the Bausell prided themselves in being such a crew. Ensign E. was not satisfied with anything short of perfection. During the days leading up to a WestPac deployment, as the ship exited San Diego Bay and returned each day, he had them work on navigational readings. And because there was always a margin of error, no matter how slight, on the last night before the deployment, he denied them shore leave. The men would not be given one last night on US soil before the deployment.

Now, in general, treating your men with undue harshness is not a wise course for any officer. It degrades morale, for one thing. But it’s even more foolish when you’re the least experienced officer on board ship, and the men you choose to alienate are the most intelligent, highly trained enlisted men on the entire vessel. My father and his buddies vowed revenge. They would have it, and it would be swift and sure. They spent that last night doing just what Ensign E. had ordered them to do – studying the navigational charts of San Diego Bay, and practicing their navigational skills.

The next day, as the ship slipped its moorings and got under way, Ensign E. took his place at the chart table and began calling for readings. My father, stationed at the sonar equipment, would call out the readings and recorded them in the navigational log. But as the ship began to make the final turn and leave the harbor, my father began calling the readings not from his sonar scope, but from a prepared cheat sheet hidden on his person (though the readings recorded in the log were still from the actual scope). Ensign E. looked puzzled as he plotted the reading. He looked at the chart, looked out the hatch at the harbor, muttered “that can’t be!” and then called out, “Give me another reading!” My father complied. Ensign E. became more confused, more frustrated, and more frantic. For while the official log shows an uneventful cruise up the bay and out to sea, Ensign E.’s chart showed that the USS Bausell had made its turn early and was cruising down the main runway of North Island Naval Air Station.

It’s at this point that my father introduced me to the other officer who plays a part in the story, the ships XO (Executive Officer, the Second-in-Command to the Captain). The XO was the opposite of a “ring-knocker”, he was a “Mustanger”, as my father called him, someone who began his career as an enlisted man but who had server so long and with such distinction that he had earned an officer’s commission, and further had reached an impressive rank even as an officer. He was also as typical of this kind of officer as Ensign E. was of the other. He had a great deal of respect for enlisted men, understood them, and judged them on their character and performance, not their rank. Furthermore he had no tolerance for incompetence, from either enlisted men or officers.

The XO was on the bridge that morning, and Ensign E.’s discomfiture quickly got his attention. He wandered over to the navigation area and watched for a few minutes. Then he walked over to the charts and looked at Ensign E.’s plots. Then he walked over to my father’s station, bent down, and looked at the logs. He looked from the log to my father to the charts, back to the log, and then at my father again, giving him a wicked, sly grin. He straightened up, shifted his foul-smelling briar pipe from one side of his mouth to the other, and addressed Ensign E. by asking him, “What rinky-dink trade school did you come from?”

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