Captain Ulmer commanded USS CLAMAGORE. In retirement he has written several submarine novels.
Explanation of this tale’s unlikely title materializes at its very end. So stay tuned. At a late fifties day’s end, World War II veteran, leading and only CPO at New London’s Submarine Development Group Two staff, set about closing his broom closet office. CPOs at DevGru, like everywhere in the Navy, made events run smoothly in addition to their main job of making officers look good.
The Chief, having earned well-deserved exhaustion, now longed to mount his ’46 Chevy steed and make for home. A lone obstacle threatened this; a newly reported Lieutenant from one of the DevGru boats stood in the doorway.
Oh crap, CPO thought, likely doesn’t understand an operation order and too embarrassed to discuss it with his exec. This could take some time. “Can I help you, sir?”
The Lieutenant responded through a grin, “You already did, Chief. Can you spare me a few minutes?” What CPO in his right mind’s gonna say he can’t spare a few minutes for an officer, especially one wearing gold dolphins? “Please have a seat, sir.” The Lieutenant opened, “I know you don’t remember me, Chief. But there’s no way I’ll forget you.” Somewhat disarmed, the Chief drew a complete blank and settled back for what he feared would be more than just a few minutes. The Lieutenant spun a yarn that began some nine years earlier in the Spring of ’49. A third class Petty Officer fresh from Great Lakes, Illinois electronic school reported at the New London transient barracks to await the next enlisted submarine school class.
Dog-tired from an overnight train ride, the new PO wished only to crash for a sleepathon. As fate would have it, he found himself assigned to that day’s duty roster and in a few hours would stand the mid (12 to 4 a.m.) barracks fire watch. PO struggled through, swilling coffee to stay awake, then at 4 a.m. made a rookie mistake. He awakened his relief, then turned in before the sleepy sailor dressed to relieve the watch properly. As PO should have expected, the sailor fell back into a deep slumber.
An hour later, a Chief of the Watch made his rounds and found the barracks without a fire watch. Surmising what had happened, he unceremoniously aroused both sleeping beauties and read the riot act. Still furious, he regained a modicum of composure and drew a bottom line for the pair of culprits. “Okay, listen up. I’ll give you an option; non-judicial punishment from the Captain.” The Chief paused and glowered. “Or you can take what I give you.” The PO envisioned an embroidered eagle badge flying from his left sleeve and said almost too quickly, “I’ll take what you give, Chief.” The fellow slumberer, a seaman, eagerly chimed his assent.
Through an angry scowl, the Chief replied, “Both of you stand the next three mid-watches. Maybe you can keep one another awake!” Only thing PO hated worse than prospects of three consecutive mid-watches … being broken back to seaman, a high probability of the non-judicial punishment option.
Six months later, aboard his first submarine, PO’s Exec notified him he’d been selected from the crew to take an exam for entrance into the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School. If he made the grade there, he’d enter Annapolis the following summer. Scion of a dirt-poor blue-collar family with no money for college, PO’s elation can only be imagined. He’d planned to join his father in a textile mill when PO’s enlistment expired. Prospects of a naval officer career exceeded his wildest dreams.
But another thought visited PO. Had Sub School CPO not offered three consecutive mid-watches in lieu of seeing the Captain, none of this would have happened. Non-judicial Punishment in his record would’ve made PO ineligible to take the Navy Prep exam. A surge of appreciation ran through his breast on realizing magnitude of the break given by Sub School CPO.
“And so you see, Chief,” the Lieutenant said, “if it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this fancy sailor suit.” The old, grizzled CPO blinked back an unexpected tear. The young officer set a fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label on CPO’s desk. “So I brought a little gift.” “Why … thank you, sir. Thank you very much.” “Don’t mention it, Chief. I got by far the better of the deal.” CPO groped for words to express his joy over how a considered inconsequential gesture he’d made long ago resulted in so consequential an outcome. He came up dry. “Lieutenant, would you close the door please?” CPO took a pair of cups from near a coffee pot, shook out the dregs, opened the Black, and poured generous shots into each of them.
For half an hour, two men regaled each other with outrageous tales capable only of submariners. Later, they parted, pleased over results of their long ago made and now paid deal. The Lieutenant went on to complete thirty-two service years; all but two of them in either submarine sea or shore duty, including command. The long interim of this late fifties tale finds us now in a different Navy, where likely the story’s convening and closing events are no longer even in the cards. Per King Arthur’s closing lines in a Broadway triumph, “Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment / That was known as Camelot.”