1. 1960, USS CAVALLA (SS-244)
I was a sonarman second class qualifying in the boat. In the CO’s stateroom sitting on the skipper’s bunk, him in his chair interviewing me for possible endorsement for the NESEP program. CO: LCDR R. Y. ‘Yogi’ Kaufman.
Yogi asked me “Does an officer have to be popular to be effective?” Tough question for someone in Yogi’s crew that week, as we’d been steaming independently in one of the NARRABAY OPAREAs and after seemingly endless hand-dives and airless- surface drills, we were beat and Yogi was singularly unpopular in the crew that Thursday (I’m pretty sure he knew that — it amused him).
My hand-dive station was especially tough, the Safety Tank Vent. Mounted with the operating handle facing forward right up against the joiner bulkhead for the crew’s dinette at the forward end of Flatbush Avenue, there wasn’t room to use a cheater bar like on all the other vents. Cycle Safety Vent meant three of us had to somehow get our hands on the stub of an operating arm and mule haul the vent open, then shut. Tough, tough work.
I blathered an answer to the question, something along the lines of ‘it might be nice and it might be helpful, but the task comes first and getting it done counts far more than being popular.’ Yogi must have liked the answers I gave him that afternoon. He forwarded my NESEP application with a powerful endorsement and I got into the program.
Ran into Admiral Kaufman many times after I was commissioned, even after we both retired. About a year before he died, I sent him a letter saying that he was my model of a commanding officer, thanking him for his wise counsel over the years, and wishing him well. The letter got lost and he didn’t receive it until eleven months later. He called me, about 2200 one night, and we talked for over an hour. He died the next month at age 85. I treasure that phone call. And the advice and example I had of him as my best skipper.
2. In PCO School, 1979 Pearl, a session with serving COs
One of them told this story… “As you know, you’ll have a number of watch quals for which you are the final interviewer. My practice has been to ask the candidate this question: ‘Why are you on watch?’ I always got one of two answers, either ‘I’m on watch to solve problems’ or ‘I’m on watch to prevent problems.’ If it was the former, I’d press the guy a lot more to see if he’d come around to what I thought was the better answer, the second one. Then in one interview I asked the question and got the best answer I’ve ever heard: ‘Why are you on watch?’ ‘To make the right things happen, sir.’” I’ve always remembered that great anecdote from a wise and good skipper near the end of his tour.
3. In command of the Navy’s oldest submarine, San Diego, 1979
I inherited an XO who was a rock. Decent guy I guess, good submarine skills, but one who’s dealings with the crew and leadership in the wardroom and with the chiefs were really poor. That was my problem. His problem was that I wasn’t going to recommend him for command if his conduct and performance stayed below what I considered minimum standards. He wasn’t listening. What to do? I decided to enlist the advice of a Sea Daddy (everyone needs a Sea Daddy), then-Commander Jim Beattie, Chief of Staff in the opposite squadron. His suggestion was that I draft an absolutely honest fitrep on the XO and use it as a coaching tool and possible corrective implement. I did, marks no higher than the middle of the page, none of the BS that passed for narrative in those days, and no recommendation for command. It was brutal. I told the guy that this is what was going in next fitrep cycle if he didn’t clean up his act.
He did. I was able to recommend him for command and he went on to a successful tour as CO of an ASR. That draft fitrep helped immensely in getting his mind right.
4. Serving as Executive Assistance to RADM Frank Kelso, Director of the Office of Program Appraisal on John Lehman’s SecNav staff ca. 1985
I was having a really tough time with some jerk O-5 or O-6 on another staff somewhere in The Building. Asked Admiral Kelso if he might have a chat with the guy’s boss. He suggested instead that I keep working it directly with the fellow I was feuding with, adding this super advice: “John, never come down on a guy from the top.”