To begin with a premise, a naval officer’s first Skipper cannot assure that an individual will stay in the Navy, but surely can guarantee that he won’t.
Submariners are a breed apart, as everyone reading this already knows. Until the early ’60s however, every officer on a nuclear submarine had first served at least a year on surface ships (to obtain the requisite OOD ticket), then spent a half year at Sub School fighting for class standing to be able to pick the best boat (CO?) on the waterfront to spend a year getting his Dolphins. Only then could he try to face down Admiral Rickover to get (always reluctantly) selected to spend another stressful year or more of six months of an academically concentrated Nuclear Power School, followed by an equally intense six months at a shore-based nuclear prototype.
In 1960 there was an abrupt schism in the scheme of things. We intended to build a hundred or so SSNs/SSBNs in the next decade, and to bypass the unacceptable three or more year pipeline for new members of nuclear submarine wardrooms, an experiment was conducted where a small number of graduates of the Naval Academy and other engineering-oriented NROTC colleges were selected and directed directly into an abbreviated Nuclear Power School/Prototype/shortened Sub School to arrive at their first ship as Ensigns on a nuclear submarine-where the rest of the wardroom (already with Dolphins) were a half decade or more senior.
Even more stressful than being tossed into a covey of competent and already proven peers, what this new route meant was that your first Skipper was one who was not accustomed to having been tasked to convert such raw meat into a nuclear submariner.
I was fortunate. My first Skipper was Commander Nonnan B. (Buzz) Bessac. Before being tasked with building SCORPION, he had been CO of GUDGEON, a SUBPAC diesel boat with an extraordinary record and reputation, and had no pretensions or concerns about ” … what kind of CO did he want to be when he grew up”.
My first encounter with him was when I had just reported in, right from an abbreviated SubSchool, early in the morning on the day that SCORPION would leave PSA at EB and transit to Norfolk to become the first SSN there. I had previously met some of the other members of the Wardroom (lightweights such as XO Ken Carr, and JOs such as Jerry Holland and Bob Fountain).
It was 10 minutes before 0800 (underway time) and I arrived in the Wardroom, in blues, with my B4 bag. Lieutenant Commander Ken Carr (XO) asked if I had met the CO. “No”, I said. “Cap’n, your new officer’s here” he called through the CO’s stateroom door which was right off the Wardroom on that class. Then a totally naked, what I remember as at least an eight foot tall person came out and asked, “What’s your name!” “Ensign Patton”, I managed to squeak out. “I know that, what’s your first name?” was the response. “Jim” I said.
“Well Jim, we’re getting underway in a few minutes, and you’ve got the Bridge-somebody show him where it is”. He disappeared back into his stateroom, and someone else pointed me towards the bridge where a skilled phone talker already had things well in hand, and kept advising such as ” … recommend you test the shaft on the EPM”-answer, “Yes, do it, good idea”.
At a few minutes to eight, SCORPION was singled up, and we (phone talker and I) had heaved around on line one (that would really kick the stern out on that class-totally ogival hull), and Mr. Phone talker (wish I could remember his name so I could finally thank him after almost a half century) recommended that I inform the Skipper and XO that we were ready to get underway. “Make it so”, I responded, very proud of myself that I had managed to get a handle on this submarining business in only 10-15 minutes.
Buzz showed up on the bridge in a minute or so, lit a cigarette, and said, “Let’s go”-only me, him and the best phone talker in the world on the bridge. He didn’t like tugs to touch his ship, so all I had to do was to back out of that EB finger pier, tum around in the Thames River, and head out to Block Island Sound.
With what I now recognize was an extraordinary amount of help from the Navigator Dick Lumsden, most of the transit up the river happened without Captain Bessac saying anything (except I now remember that he was by then on his second pack of cigarettes).
In any case, Ensign Patton was now riding high. All by himself he had gotten out of port and into the channel, and with SCORPION now on the step (an almost class-unique phenomena-later tried to do it with both a 593 and a 616-didn’t work) where, once at a FuJJ bell or more, some rise was put on the stem planes, and when the ship got to about a 5 degree up angle, it picked up some 5 knots or so, and you could take the stem planes off (keeping in mind that you were now drawing more than 40 feet aft). Kind of a bat out of hell feeling on the surface. When you later slowed, it was like an aircraft stalling ship would shudder and shake, then literally drop down to a more traditional stance.
As we approached Point Alfa (New London Ledge light SW of Fisher’s Island-entry to the infamous Race where all of Long Island Sound dumps in or out of the Atlantic twice a day through a gap only a mile wide), the Navigator, now beginning to bore me with unsolicited and unnecessary advice, said ” … when Point Alfa is 45 degrees off your port bow, recommend come left 10 degrees to new course xxx”. “Bridge Aye”, I responded casually, then showing my professionalism, manned the pelorus on the bridge gyro repeater so I could hit that tum bearing right on the mark.
“Left full rudder” was my order when Point Alfa was precisely 45 degrees off the port bow. “Wait!” came from somewhere on the bridge-oh yes, the Captain, perhaps by now on his third pack of cigarettes-I had forgotten he was there. “Put your rudder amidships, then try about 2 degrees left rudder”.
After getting through the Race rather than endlessly circling just in front of it, Buzz went below and the real 000, Lieutenant Jerry Holland, who had been in the doghouse a level below the bridge in the sail came up and, as he has always since, graciously taught me a few things I needed to know. Then we did the easy part out to Montauk Point, where a tum to the right would open up all of the adventures and risks of the Atlantic (and the then burgeoning Soviet Navy)-an experience with which I was subsequently to fall in love, along with such as the officers and crew who were in the belly of the whale that day with no other purpose than to professionally make happen whatever the person having the conn dictated, be he Ensign or Commander.
It was an interesting first few hours on my first submarine with my first CO. That evening at dinner (submerged) he would further advise me that I was to be an OOD within a month, and that he didn’t ever want me to “go aft of frame 53 (forward Reactor Compartment bulkhead)-! had been doing nuke stuff for more than a year now, and it was time I learned to be a submariner”.
It was a marvelous six months with a marvelous skipper. He strapped that ship on like a gunslinger would strap on a pair of Colt .45s. He had my later arrived classmate Mark Golden or I make every underway and landing without rugs. We saw and did things that even in this enlightened out of the closet times we don’t feel comfortable talking about, but only enhanced our gee whiz! feelings about what the Submarine Force was, is and will be.
Buzz was a geographic bachelor in Norfolk, knowing he was to return to New London to build ALEXANDER HAMILTON and a few times I remember him stalking around a largely deserted in-port wardroom until he asked such as:
“What are you doing?”
“Sir, sketching the hydraulic system for my qual notebook.”
“Isn’t there a diagram of that in the Ship’s Information Book?”
“Do you know how the system works?”
” Then tear the damned diagram out of the SIB, put it in your notebook, and come to the 0-Club with me.”
Yogi Kaufman relieved him some 5-6 months later. Yogi was also a talented submariner, but very different than Buzz. Whereas Captain Bessac loved to be argued with (I think often purposely stating something questionable just to stir up discussion), Captain Kaufman didn’t really seek out conflicting views on his stated opinions. In fact, I can now realize he must have gotten a little tired of Ensign Patton’s unsolicited views that ” … Cap’n, with all due respect, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard”. But all that’s yet another story.
Somehow Mark Golden and I forgot to tell Yogi that Buzz “had directed” that we split doing the qual notebook chapters in two, and that when typed, a carbon copy be made. There was a brief hell to pay episode when, returning from our third deployment in a year (finally qualifying as EOOWs just the night before), Mark and I found that we both had orders to New Construction JAMES MONROE via Bettis (the class there starting in 3 days). Yogi protested, but was told that Mark and I, as the promised two sea-experienced JOs’ each new construction SSBN was promised, would have Dolphins on our chest and be detached by noon the next day. When he saw our literally identical notebooks (other than the fact that every other chapter in each was a carbon copy vice original) he became somewhat stressed. We were both on the road to Pittsburgh the next day sporting Dolphins (but never having stood an EOOW watch on our first submarine).
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to have had two extraordinary COs on my first ship. It is hard for me to decide who was the better. I am fortunate, however, that the sequence was as it was. Buzz knocked down any artificial barriers to the training of young officers and, with a great deal of elan, faith and support, pushed me into the deep end of the submarining pool while having a good deal of understanding for my mistakes. Yogi was tough to work for, had little patience for anything but his conception of excellence, but managed to harden the soft edges left from my having been somewhat coddled as a cute little aspirant to the profession. He taught me the value of being a little tough at times in the future. I really consider him a good friend now, but in 1962 it was a different matter. Neither of those first COs lacked for confidence, but each expressed it differently, and both passed on a bit of that internal philosophy to me and many others, to meld and blend with many other experiences before being trusted to shape others on a large scale.
Other than being just another sea story, I guess the audience for this piece is that group of officers who have just (or are about to) assume command. Forty years from now there will be a small number of ex-naval officers who will also speak of what kind of first CO you were. Be careful, understanding and considerate. The entry level people you are working with are the best in the world, and it is within your power to either tum them on or tum them off. Be a Buzz Bessac-inspire and train them-keep them aboard. Some subsequent Yogi Kaufman will harden their edges. They need you both.
n retrospect, one of the finest compliments I ever received, though it was not meant as such at the time, was from a very disappointing 2nc1 XO while I was CO PARGO. The NESEP program was marvelous, and brought us some marvelous submariners, but just a few of them made the mistake of considering themselves Mustangs after the Navy sent them to college as 3n1 Class Petty Officers. His comment was “Captain, your problem is that you are too easy on the junior officers and crew, and too hard on the more senior”. I was accused of being Buzz Bessac to the Seamen and Ensigns, but Yogi Kaufman to the Chiefs and Lieutenant Commanders. Guilty as charged.
May it ever be so. What parent doesn’t shower more affection and attention on the infant rather than (though not neglecting) the adolescent, who’s already had his turn.
The Submarine Technology Symposium (SUBTECH) will be held at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory May 13-15 2003.The annual NSL Symposium will be held June 11-12, 2003. Registration packets will be mailed to NSL members in April.