Captain Patton commanded PARGO (SSN650) and is now President of Submarine Tactics and Technology of North Stonington, CT.
In a previous piece for the NSL THE SUBMARINE REVIEW titled The First Skipper, it was stressed just how important that individual was for a young officer on his first submarine, and how fortunate I had been to have had CDR Buz Bessac as that first CO on SCORPION (SSN589). I didn’t realize it then, but he was treating me as a PCO – not a bad concept for the care and feeding of all JOs, since that is exactly what they are. Not mentioned in that first article, but the subject of this one, is the equal if not greater importance of one’s last Skipper – the one you have as XO – your last opportunity to learn the finer points of the submarine trade before you have to go off and do it without adult supervision- as a CO yourself. I was again very fortunate in this regard in that for me this individual was CDR Bruce DeMars on new construction CA VALLA (SSN684). These two bookends to my 13-year submarine apprenticeship served me well when I was given the opportunity to command PARGO, and their entirely different but complementary styles influenced many of the good decisions I made in that job. The bad decisions were entirely of my own doing.
If The First Skipper was really lecturing to COs and JOs about the critical nature of that initial submarine experience, than The Last Skipper is doing the same for present and future COs and XOs about how that last phase of the apprenticeship- the residency if you will – can and should be conducted.
The experience didn’t start well however. From refueling/decontamination Engineer of DANIEL WEBSTER (SSBN626) at Newport News I had gone to the Pentagon for a year before agreeing to do a year (with 6 month Med deployment) as Third Officer on LAPON (SSN661) – the understanding being that I could then pick the boat/CO in Norfolk for my XO tour, having previously just bought our first home in Newport News.
Upon finishing that tour and calling BuPers, I was told “…sorry about that, but all the XO jobs in Norfolk are filled, and you’ll be going to build CAVALLA at EB, homeport Pearl Harbor”. This was 1971, and I/we had moved at least once a year since USNA graduation in 1960 and now even had furniture and two small kids – I was not happy.
That evening CDR DeMars called me at home and in his trademarked laid-back and low key manner, said he was happy to have gotten me, that I had a great background – yadayadayada etc. This seemed the final straw – not only had I never heard of this guy, but my previous service with more senior submariners I’d served with had lead me to conclude that the realty good ones – Buz Bessac, Yogi Kaufinan, Ken Carr, Whitey Mack, Jerry Holland et. a1. – were anything but laid back and low-key, and even sometimes bordered on boisterous. Now it looked like I was stuck with a Type B Casper Milquetoast for a Skipper.
There was nothing to rent in the New London area, and we had to buy a second house – hoping someday to get back to the one in Newport News. Long-hull 637s were being pumped out like popcorn in those days, running some ten months from launch to delivery. I considered myself an old hand when it came to shipyard tours having earlier built FLASHER and JAMES MONROE and overhauled DANIEL WEBSTER, and as such, was coming in late and going home early – the CO being already there when I arrived and still there when I left.
This went on for three-four weeks until CDR DeMars asked me one day “Jim, can I see you in my office?” My reply was something in the order of “Well Captain, I’m kind of busy, but OK…” In his office he took out a yellow legal pad and, calmly and without emotion (Yogi used to throw things at me) began running down a long list of my shortcomings and failures – ” .. . I told you to have this finished by so and so, and ifs still not done; you told me this and such would happen and it hasn’t; thus and such was done wrong – twice” and on and on.
After several pages and many minutes he had gotten my attention, and I had concluded that: one – he’s going to fire me, and two – I deserve it. Setting down the legal pad, I got a long and powerfully quiet stare before he said “As XO, I want everyone else in the world to think you ‘re running this ship – but don’t ever you get confused.” From that point on things were gangbusters, and I really took aboard the valuable lesson that: no, all the good ones aren’t loud and extroverted.
The Skipper had a talent for cutting to the quick of an issue and was a master of the “Occam’s razor” philosophy – the simplest answer is usually the best. At one point during the precommissioning period he asked me how I was coming on ship’s instructions. I told him I was plagiarizing (pre-word processors) as fast as I could, and was thankful that there were more letters in SIL VERSIDES than in CA VALLA, but that we were required to have some hundred or so instructions.
“Like what?” he asked, already knowing where this conversation was going.
“Well, for instance, SECNAV requires us to have an instruction on how we are going to train reservists when they’re aboard for active duty.” I replied.
“We’re not going to have reservists on board for active duty – don’t do that one. In fact, you can have as many ship’s instructions you want as long as it’s not more than twelve. And remember, the importance of doing what your bosses direct in things like this is inversely proportional to their seniority. If SECNA V or the CNO directs something, don’t bother – if the Squadron Commander tells us, get right on it.”
“Yes sir” I answered with incredible sincerity and gratitude.
“And Jim, tell the Department Heads they can have one instruction – their Organization Manual – and if they want Chapter One to be about training, then Chapter One in all the Department Organization manuals will be about training – their choice.” (before the standardized Engineering Organization Manual)
In my day I have seen more than a little lip service given to how one takes care of the people entrusted to them, but few actually did it more sincerely and effectively than Bruce DeMars, and I brought many of his techniques with me to Command. For example, each quarter he would meet in private with each of the paygrades sequentially, ask them what their issues were, and promise to do something about valid complaints if he could. After one such meeting with the Seamen he told me to find at least six bunks in crew’s quarters (less the Goat Locker) where there was a locker at either the head or foot of the bunk. I did, and a request was put into EB to extend the bunk 6 inches into the locker, and to fabricate cushioned “extenders” that effectively increased the length of the bunk. It turned out that one exceptionally tall Seaman had told him that he never got a good night’s sleep aboard, because he just didn’t fit into the standard bunk length. These six bunks were preferentially assigned to tall enlisted crew members regardless of rank.
Analogous to the above was the response to the complaint of junior crew members living aboard that although they understood the need to bunk in the torpedo room while at sea, they didn’t understand why better bunking went unused 2/3 of the time when in port. The fix in this case was that in port duty sections bunked in one given section of crew’s berthing, and that junior personnel living on board were temporarily assigned better berths where no wake-up calls would be being made for others through the night. In all of such fixes to an individual or group problem, there was a parallel issue of selling the fix to others affected – again skillfully done on the basis of honest dialogue – “Here’s the problem, here’s what I am doing to solve it, the solution is in the best interests of the ship, and I’d like your support in the matter”.
When we started going to sea the Skipper told me there was a set of rules he’d like followed – ie.:
- There would be a movie in the Wardroom eve1y night
- The movie would start at precisely 2000
- The CO would always watch the whole movie
- The CO would never pick the movie
- Whoever picked the movie had to watch the whole thing
- No one could watch the movie standing up
It took a while to decipher the logic behind all this, but it was simply a Command-endorsed and guilt-free two hours of sloth every night after a hard day’s work which someone like the Engineer couldn’t spoil by waiting till the lights went out, coming into the Wardroom for a cup of coffee, then leaning on the sideboard waiting to leave between reel changes – making everyone else feel bad because he was working.
In retrospect, the most extraordinary observation of those almost three years on CA VALLA was that there was only one Bruce DeMars. It is extremely difficult to deal with all people in the exactly same manner, but if the CO was on the phone as I passed his office, I could not tell, by the tone and manner of his speaking, whether he was talking to his wife, Admiral Rickover, Seaman Smith, or Seaman Smith’s wife he treated everyone with the same even respect and dignity. Even today, Admiral B. DeMars, USN (Ret) is exactly the same person I knew and served with as CDR B. DeMars.
As is probably true for everyone in our profession (and most others), every CO (and XO) I served under shaped me to some degree, but some more than others. It is almost inescapable that the two that will affect a submariner the most will be his first and last Skipper.