To be or not to be, a captain?

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July 19, 2010

To be or not to be, a captain?
By John G. Denham

It is safe to assume that most sea farers at one time or another have wanted to be a captain; command a ship, boat or vessel at sea. If this goal is pursued in government service it is achieved by committees in a selection and promotion process and in the private sector, a license is required followed by a less complicated purpose-biased process. Being a product of both processes, two essential elements are recalled: 1.Except in rare circumstances noone becomes a ship’s captain without expressing the desire. 2. In preparation one must display interest, knowledge and ability and be recommended.

As a youngster at sea, command was beyond my thoughts. I was involved in a great war in which survival was primary. By 1944 the drudgery of deck seamanship and hours of boredom with occasional periods of excitements created a yearning to move up. Standing around in a cool, well ventilated pilot house for four hours seemed ideal. Many shipmates had become officers as opportunities were available for experienced seaman. By wars end I was an officer with experience, along with some thousands of others.

Shortly after, jobs at sea were a matter of luck; one day a shortage next day a surplus. However, the government needed experienced sea going officers in both the Navy and USCG. The academies and programs did not satisfy the fluctuating need. The U.S. Merchant Marine Naval Reserve (DML) served two purposes: provided the merchant marine with naval knowledgeable mariners and the Navy with a resource of experienced mariners if needed; a corollary to the concept with medical persons.

The secret to succeeding is not alone in the seeker, but also in the finder; the one who recognizes the hidden talent, sees a person that wants to move-up, maybe a captain, but mostly a possible leader and has the raw material to achieve. As I look back not all seniors were talent scouts, some, unfortunately were discouraging and resentful of any identifying traits. However there were many exceptionally clairvoyant shipmates, officers, captains, admirals, seaman and cooks that were mentors and are remembered. They help as one stumbles, they take extra time, provide encouragement and appropriately apply kicks. Some candidates display no early signs of brilliance or exceptional ability, just sparks of dedication and persistence and later interest, study, inquiry and observation..

The sea always called me; any job at sea was better than a job ashore. My navy experience is best recalled because it is recorded in evaluations and records and in the memories of interested persons. As an Ensign USNR, DM on active duty in a fleet oiler I was superfluous although I had years of experience. I spend a year being an assistant to almost everyone however, my commanding officer, a senior navy Captain noticed. Soon I was utilized as an underway OOD in formation steaming. A competent, trustworthy watch officer on the 0000-0400 is a Captain’s dream After an adventurous cruise to sea I was encouraged to request destroyers.

In destroyers I was again assigned to time consuming and wasteful employment as an assistant. The Squadron Commodore relied on the ship’s Executive Officer for navigation and weather information; otherwise a competent officer he was not skilled. Again my knowledge and skill was recognized and I was “loaned” to the SQUAD DOG when the division deployed and traveled overseas. I did well as an OOD and Navigator. In 1950 I was ordered  to a Pacific Fleet destroyer in Korea. By 1953 I had impressed four senior Captains, four commanding officers, been promoted to Lieutenant junior grade and acquired some everlasting friendships (important). In departing from the oiler and two destroyers I departed with a clean slate i.e., no unfinished business or hidden problems. My replacements were well briefed and understood what they inherited, as did the C.O. (Evaluations were written after one departed.

Where ever I went my USNR status was no problem but seniority was. I was always several years junior, but some how my Captain’s found a slot for me. Seniority is a navy problem that probably stalls many careers. When the Korean thing ended I was in excess and returned to the merchant marine only to be “overstowed” by licensed masters mariners. I was promoted, demoted, relieved, discharged and rehired but some how always employed on a ship. As a Lieutenant, USNR, Merchant Marine Naval Reserve while at sea I was selected for augmentation into the U.S. Navy.

Steady employment with career opportunities was foreign to me and a shocking revelation. My life and expectancies had changed overnight. One day I was a merchant marine officer unloading coffee in San Pedro, California and the next day I was a Lieutenant, USN ordered to report as Commanding Officer USS ESTERO AKL 5. This unexpected selection was probably based on four years of outstanding evaluations by three navy Captains and three Commanders and “the needs of the service.” A later review showed no other documentation.

During the next 20 years I learned a number of critical selection criteria.
1. It is more effective to impress his advisors than it is the boss.
2. Share the honors, it is noted.
3. Heroism is rewarded, outstanding performance acknowledged and recorded and misconduct punished, each according to the merits.
4. If it is wrong don’t look for blame, seek solutions.
5.There are no “off-the cuff,” “not for publication” or “ between us” comments with anyone.
6. Competition ends at burial.
7. Real friends are unsuspected.
8. The last word is YES SIR!

Lastly command is not a reward, it is an investment by well meaning persons.

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