A Speech to the Submarine Strategic Weapons
12 April 1990
The U.S. Navy used to fire salutes at three second intervals and the gunner’s mates had a cadence they used to time the shots.
“If I wasn’t a gunner, I wouldn’t be here! Fire!” “If I wasn’t a gunner, I wouldn’t be here!” I’ve taught that expression to many of you – it’s my way of instilling pride in being a gun boss. We, you and I, represent the corps of submarine force professional gunners. That’s a neat title and we are some pretty elite people.
When the Commanding Officer of an SSBN asks his Engineer for advice, it’s either because the CO is training the engineer to think, or else the CO hasn’t bothered to figure out the answer for himself, but could.
When the Commanding Officer asked the Weapons Officer for advice, the buck stopped there. No one else was going to help with the answer. No one else on board even knew the answer. The professional gun boss had a mystique about his job that the average Commanding Officer could not comprehend and that the submarine force utterly failed to grasp.
Note that I use the past tense when I refer to the professional seaman gunnery officer in submarines. I fear that that era has passed in favor of assigning the billet of Weapons Officer to a generalist who sees it as one more ticket in the path to command.
John Prebble, in his historical masterpiece, CULLODEN, understood the mystique of the weaponeer as compared to the generalist. He describes Brevet-Colonel William Belford, Commander of the Train, Royal Regiment of Artillery, who stood at Drumossie Moor the morning of 16 April 1746, by writing that:
“He was thirty-four years of age and he was not like officers of Foot and Horse to whom military service was often an exciting extension of their social life. He was dedicated to his profession and close-mouthed about his art, believing, like most men who are servants of machines, that they imposed upon him certain spiritual obligations. These he had read when a cadet. as they had been set down by Captain Thomas Binning who asked of a gunner, ‘that he be one that feareth God more than his Enemy, that he be Constant and not given to Change, that he be Faithfu~ True, and Honest.’
Being a gunner on board an SSBN encompassed much of that and more. Nothing quite compares to being a true expert in a field when no one else is, and that descnbed the strategic missile gun boss of a few years ago.
And what years they were! We lived on the cutting edge of innovation. While the nuclear power side essentially froze its technology between the late SO’s and February 1982, the strategic weaponeers pushed forward the frontiers of science. We learned how to deal with new forms of propellent and new concepts in targeting. We developed operating procedures and casualty procedures as each new system came along, while backfitting what we learned into the systems that existed already.
We worked hard and we played hard. We had fun doing all this, although some of the humor was at our own expense. I remember DASO in September 1972, when those of us in USS GEORGE BANCROFT were adjusting to the Poseidon missile. My Assistant Weapons Officer was lying on his back in the equipment section of a launch candidate doing a close-out inspection when he decided to grab a bundle of confined detonating fuse and to shake it to ensure it was tightly secured It moved slightly. Simultaneously and coincidentally, the ship lost shore power and those events common to a 640 class loss of shore power occurred — the lights went out momentarily as the ABT shifted and the breather valves all failed to automatic – permitting the residual air in the header to make a loud bang as it vented into the tube. The A Weps knew only that, as he grabbed the fusing, darkness and a loud bang had occurred. He never quite recovered from his fear that he had started a twenty-five hundred mile ride downrange.
We, the professional corps of submarine gunners, suffered some unreadiness due to our equipment, and we suffered some due to our stupidity. But — we never had an accident or significant incident Most importantly, we kept the free world free. That sounds like flag waving, but it’s troe. Glasnost, which marks the start of what may be a new era of peace, was made possible by those of us in this audience, and our predecessors, who bored holes in the ocean while the diplomats and the forces of history worked towards today’s developments.
We can, and we should be proud of that. We showed up at a time when our country needed us, and we leave as our job winds down. We must not concern ourselves that we leave as unknowns. Tell me the name of any gunner in the U.S. Navy in any year of the 1850s. Tell me the name of any gunner in the U.S. Navy in any year of the 1920s. Our predecessors kept the peace, did their job, and retired unheroically. I hope there is honor in preserving the peace, even if there is little glory in doing it. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” “My son, I kept it from being one.” If I wasn’t a gunner, I wouldn’t be here. I’m proud of that I’m proud of having bad a career where I can say that I tried to “fear God more than my Enemy, be constant and not given to change, be faithful, troe, and honest.” We, the professional submarine weapons officers, are about to go away – victims of changing times, changing attitudes, and a system that works too well.
“Morituri te salutant” – We, who are about to die, salute you. So who gets to take over now? There really is an answer and it’s an answer that has worked in the Navy since John Paul Jones. When all else fails, when the chips are really down, go find a Chief Petty Officer. Go find someone who really is a specialist, both technically and managerially. Tell him to carry forth the torch. Ask the Chief. We have never expected our Communicators to copy morse code or be able to repair a teletype. Our Sonar Officers rarely have had the ability to put on a headset and derive meaningful information therefrom. Few food service officers know how to cook.
We’ve assigned those billets to officers whose job it is, and has been, to manage divisions and departments. The officer took care of his men and ensured their well being. He, in tum, required that his organization ron smoothly and efficiently. When something didn’t work, he stuck his head in enough to satisfy himself that the right people were repairing it and then he ran interference for them while they did the maintenance. The officer, perhaps, was directly responsible for some small aspect of the division’s duties, such as crypto custodian in radio, but rarely did he get that intimately involved. So who did? Ask the Chief! And that’s where we must consider ourselves to be today in the strategic weapons world. Our Weapons Officers, henceforth, will be officers passing through billets. If there is to be a cadre of professional gun bosses in the future, the group will be so small that many of you will never meet one.
The mantle, the honor, the glory, and the work of the professional gunner has moved back down where it probably always belonged – to the Chiefs’ Quarters. Perhaps in five years, some Chief will be standing here on the podium. Hopefully, he’ll be discussing the role of the professional gunner. He’ll be talking of keeping the system on line in the face of difficulties with equipment and personnel. He’ll stress that he cannot do his job unless the wardroom lets him know what’s required. He’ll complain about it no longer being the good ol’ days. He’ll say, “If I wasn’t a gunner, I wouldn’t be here!” We need to restructure to make that happen. We need to recognize the reality that the Chiefs must take over a role that they lost, for whatever reason, when the submarine force underwent some fundamental changes in the late 50s and early 60s.
Chiefs, and now I am speaking directly to you, you must become the keeper of the flame of professionalism. You must recognize that you are not “twidgets”, and you must refuse to let your people think that way. The main battery of a standard hull SSBN is sixteen 72-inch, 5.85 caliber, single shot, muzzle loading, smoothbores. A TRIDENT TI submarine has twentyfour 83-inch, 6.44 caliber, single shot, muzzle loading, smoothbores. You need to know that, because every gunner knows his main armament. You may be aiming them with computers; you may be firing them with gas generators instead of silk bags of cordite; but you are still gunners; the honorable carriers of that title. The minute that you let your troops believe that they are simply twidgets, that’s the minute you stop being a professional with wide ranging responsibilities and traditions and become just another routine guy with a routine job. Your heritage comes from the gunners of the Royal Navy, described by A R. Hall as: “Recruited from the hard service of the seas … or a line of martial ancestors, such men as these, with the intellectual cream of other crafts, were the aptest interpreters of science and the discoverers of its utilitarian charms.” I say to you, “Morituri te salutant.” Now it is your tum to say back to me, “If I wasn’t a gunner, I wouldn’t be here!” I challenge you to figure out how to operate the SSBN weapons systems as the professionals you are.
I challenge you to develop the curricula and the dogma that will permit the chief petty officer to reclaim the role of the professional seaman gunner. You won’t get the officer corps to help — we’re history. We did our job, and now we’re virtually gone. The job, Chiefs, is yours. I say to you, “Morituri te salutant.” But I also say, “Pass the word from gun to gun, this will be a firing run!” Go get ’emand good luck.