In the Navy

Posted on September 14, 2017


The tragic accidents over the past month in the far Pacific, the home of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, brought back my own memories of similar circumstances, although while in the Mediterranean, the home of the Sixth Fleet.

Today we continue to have a presence in all the major oceans of the world. In the last month, two guided missile destroyers (USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain) have been involved in collisions at sea with commercial vessels.

At least one admiral—the commanding officer of the Seventh Fleet—has been sacked as the Navy investigates the fleet’s state of readiness and training to answer the question, which I’m also curious about: why did this happen?

As a young Ensign—a line officer—I was assigned to the amphibious ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20). Aside from being Weapons Officer (“Gun Boss” in the old Navy lingo) I was also assigned watches on the bridge while at sea.

I started out as the JOOD (Junior Officer of the Deck) and in time I was promoted and advanced to OOD, Underway, or Officer of the Deck, Underway, in Formation, or the Navy’s way of saying in charge of the ship’s navigation and safety while underway on the high seas.

It’s a big responsibility for a 23 or 24-year-old, but the training was good, it was rigorous. I learned to make decisions, and to have confidence in those decisions.

This is when the fun began. I remember well steaming at night, somewhere in the Atlantic or Mediterranean, in formation with five other amphibious ships in our squadron.

We were heading due east, or about 900 on the compass.

The captain of the ship sometimes slept in his small “sea cabin’ just behind the bridge to be close for any emergencies.

The flagship ordered a turn to 0100 or to the north. I thought I heard “Turn 1800”

I turned to my JOOD, “1800 right?”

“Correct,” he said.

So, two of us were wrong.

I ordered the helmsman “come right to 1800.” Our ship’s heading slowly began to swing to the right.

The ships in the formation were in a loose formation, about 1000 yards apart.
As I peered into the night to see the navigation lights on the other ships I noted, “they’ve all turned in the wrong direction! What’s going on here!”
Sure enough, as the lights were trending, I was aimed right at the flagship.
“Left full rudder,” I snapped at the helmsman.

“Left full rudder, aye sir,” he responded immediately, sensing some urgency.
About that time the captain emerged from sea cabin, a little groggy from sleep.
He quickly surmised that we were in rapid turn away from the squadron. “What happened Larry?”

I told him.

“Ah, carry on. Just get back on station as soon as possible,” he said gently. “I’ve run through a few formations in my time,” and he returned to his little sea cabin.

I was astonished that the entire squadron had turned the “wrong” way, and the fact that I was on a head on collision course with the flagship astounded me even more.

No one collided with anyone that night and the captain never mentioned it again.
What does all the above tell us? I left out one important element. As we steamed in the Caribbean and Atlantic, we saw many merchant vessels steaming in straight lines through the night, no matter what the rules of the road called for.

There are, BTW, very specific “rules of the road,” by which all ships at sea are supposed to abide by to avoid what happened last month to the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain. I suspect some of those commercial vessels involved in the collisions were operating outside of or despite the rules of the road, some on “automatic” pilot.

In heavily trafficked sea lanes, like the Strait of Malacca for example, it can get hairy. My bet is a difficult crossing at sea situation rapidly escalated into a dangerous situation, and someone panicked.

The other factor may be the training and preparedness level. Cruises that once lasted six months, now go one for nine months and even a year. A tired OOD is going to make some bad decisions.

The new technology, in communications and navigation, undoubtedly is light years ahead of the electronics available to me in 1965. The problem becomes interpreting the data on the screens. No matter how sophisticated, how many apps and algorithms are built in, human intervention must occur, and there is small margin for error.

Published as “In the Navy, Human Error will always be a Factor,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 3, 2017

Posted in: Navy