While most of our country is obsessed with fear, hate and outright lies, i am reminded of a critical moment in my life.
Earlier this week, The New York Times picked up on the San Diego ABC affiliate television news story and reported an unnamed crew member of the USS Bon Homme Richard (LHD-6) is being investigated for arson in the disastrous fire that possibly put the capital ship out of commission forever.
The news took me back to my lone engineering tour. In 1973, i was assigned as the chief engineer of the USS Hollister (DD-788) home ported at Naval Station, Long Beach. The Hollister had just become a reserve destroyer in Destroyer Squadron 27. My engineering department had a master chief and two chief boiler tenders; two master chief, one senior chief and two chief machinist mates; and a full complement of the engineering crew. But because a reserve ship’s crew is to be augmented by reservists, i soon found myself with only one master chief, two first class boiler tenders, and one first class machinist mate. In addition, i had only a third of my deep hold engineers left. The other two-thirds were to filled by reservists one weekend each month and one two-week “active duty for training” or ACTDUTRA each year. i quickly discovered that most reserve engineers don’t have the experience required to run a 600-pound steam plant effectively, and my department would essentially being trying to perform our duties while having only one-third of our personnel to do it.
i will not complain about that. It just wasn’t a real easy job.
Then came the incident that came to mind when i read the the new news about the Bon Homme Richard fire. We were in port getting ready to get underway in ten days for a week of exercises. The ship was cold iron, i.e. getting all of our services from the pier with no boilers or our own auxiliary power sources being used. i had gone home for the evening.
In the duty section was a malcontent. i do not remember his name. He had been in nuclear submarines and was promoted to third class nuclear machinist mate, but he had gotten in trouble and was reduced in rate to MMFN again. The submarine force did not put up with trouble, and the sailor was kicked out of submarines. With reasoning i never understood, the Navy decided the surface Navy should get the submariners problems. The sailor was transferred to the Hollister. Shortly after he came aboard, he went to captain’s mast again, reduced in rate to MMFA, was restricted to the ship for 45 days, had 60 days of extra duty, and lost half his pay for two months.
This did not improve his morale.
That evening, he was assigned to the mid-watch (00-04) as cold iron security watch in the main engineering spaces, the two fire rooms and two engine rooms. Shortly after he took over the watch, he opened the sea valves in main control, the forward engine room.
The command duty officer called me about 0415. It was a twenty-minute drive from our Navy officer housing in San Pedro. i put on my uniform and made it to the ship in less than fifteen minutes. The on-coming watch reported the flooding to the duty engineer as soon as his rounds took him to main control. The duty engineers and damage control personnel had closed the valves and began pumping the water out, but when my senior machinist mate, the lone first class remaining, and i got down to main control, the water level was almost below the lower level deck plates. The high point had been not quite to the upper level. About a dozen lower level pumps, some essential for the number one engine to operate, were under water, salt water.
We notified the chain of command. Shipyard personnel began almost immediately to work on the damaged equipment. but several of the electric powered pumps, the ones damaged the most by the salt water immersion, were sent out to local contractors, what we called “bicycle shops.” The first class and i began sixteen hour days running around Long Beach to these various shops overseeing the repair efforts.
Sometime before midnight before we were scheduled to get underway, the last pump was put back into place and proved operational. The Hollister made her underway commitment by the skin of her teeth.
The MMFN was charged and the captain assigned him a general court martial. It was time to turn my hat in the other direction. The sailor was still in my department, my responsibility, and his leading petty officer, division officer, and his department head, aka yours truly, had walked him through XOI (Executive Officer’s Screening Mast) and Captain’s Mast in the process to assign him the general court martial. Someone also had to counsel him on his rights and advise him on what choices he had. For some reason, his division officer was not available. So it was up to me.
i had him report to my stateroom/office/home. He sat in the extra chair as i sat in the one by the pull-down desk. i proceeded to counsel him. It was one of the strangest situations i have faced in my life. Here i was they guy who possibly would have gotten the worse from his criminal act, yet i was supposed to help him minimize what penalties he might receive.
I think i did that, give him the best chance he had in his dire situation.
Later when i was executive officer of the USS Yosemite, i recommended to the Captain we administratively discharge a sailor rather than assigning to a court martial. Captain Francis J. Boyle decided against my recommendation and assigned a summary court martial. Captain Boyle’s comment at the time was to the effect as CO he was responsible for ensuring justice be served. My reply was i understood and my job was to ensure good order and discipline.
That is when i remembered the Hollister’s flooding, and i felt proud i had attempted to ensure justice was served in that incident. i think it was another step in my understanding Navy leadership and how it was supposed to work.
The investigation of the Bon Homme Richard’s fire is far from being completed. It may be years before there is a conclusion. That arson was the cause for that calamitous fire makes a lot of sense to me. It will be interesting to watch this unfold.
As i learned on the Hollister in 1974, and the Yosemite in 1984, i hope justice is truly served.