Ships of fools

Discovering whether a rural legend is true or not can take all sorts of time and effort, and even then you might never find it out.

First, they’re almost always spread by word of mouth, and rarely in writing. And even if they’re written down, typically it’s long after the event itself happened. Beyond that, it’s usually taken from people who heard it third-hand themselves, or maybe are hopelessly gullible, or even are pathological liars.

Second, if the event happened long ago, odds are any reputable people who were there at the time have long since gone to The Great Story Hour in the Sky.

And third, even if those people are alive and reputable, too often they can’t be approached either due to their refusal to talk or our reticence to approach them.

This is why I was so lucky to have finally found out the real story behind The Drop Anchor Legend of Ed Woodward.

Ed taught forestry at Paul Smith’s College for a quarter-century or so, but he’d had a whole ‘nother life before that. He was a 1932 graduate of Annapolis who had a 20-year career in the Navy. He earned the rank of commodore, which is an interesting note of and by itself.

Commodore, though no longer a rank, went through a bunch of iterations in the Navy. When Ed was commodore during World War II, it was a rank above captain but below rear admiral. Essentially, it was given to senior officers who didn’t have the official status of an admiral but were doing an admiral’s job. Ed was in command of nine destroyer escorts in the Pacific, and while never one to brag, he did tell me he never lost a ship.

Commodore was also only a wartime rank, so once the war was over, they reverted to their previous rank — in Ed’s case, to commander.

To get an idea of how few commodores there were in WWII: The Navy had 400,000 officers, but fewer than 100 were commodores.

The Legend

The Drop Anchor Legend was standard fare in the PSC rumor mill when I was a student, and it lasted the length of Woody’s career. The students always called Ed “Woody” as an affectionate nickname, but never to his face. And although they’d all heard the Drop Anchor story, no one ever asked him if it was true or not.

Essentially, while the students liked Ed and his teaching, he just didn’t seem approachable. For one thing, he looked stern, with a craggy, stone face that rarely broke into a smile, and a formal manner that one might expect of a career Navy officer. He also was no hail-fellow-well-met, nor did he have either the time or inclination to indulge in small talk.

And something else kept him distanced from the students (and just about everyone else at PSC), namely how he responded to questions or how he made comments in general. His replies, dependent on his mood, could either be oddly humorous or strangely esoteric.

As for his humor? Wherever Ed went he almost always had an unlit cigar stuck in his mouth. And of course we always wondered if he ever lit it. Finally, as a freshman, Jack Skelley screwed his courage to the sticking point, stopped Ed on his way out of Cantwell Hall and came right out with it.

“Excuse me, Professor Woodward,” he said, “but do you ever light your cigars?”

Ed eyeballed Jack, a look of mock surprise on his face.

“Why, my boy,” Ed said, “haven’t you read the surgeon general’s latest report on the dangers of smoking?” and kept walking, never missing a step.

It was a perfect Ed non-answer to a very specific question.

Of kings and clods

As for the esoteric? In one president’s meeting there was all sorts of debate about some new “improvement” the powers that be were trying to ram down our throats. There was a bunch of back and forth about its expense and practicality, or even if it could even be put in place at all. Almost everybody gave their two cents, too often with endless detail and boring delivery. After everyone had their say and just before the meeting adjourned, Ed raised his hand and was recognized.

“You’ll probably have at least as much a chance of success as King Canute,” he said.

King Canute? We all heard it, but I doubt anyone knew who, or what, he was. Certainly, I didn’t.

As we filed out the door I asked one of the administrators who King Canute was, and he did what no first-year teacher in his right mind would ever do — he faked it. I can’t remember what he said, but I immediately knew he had no idea what he was talking about.

Later that day I asked Ed who King Canute was. He explained King Canute was a king of Denmark, Norway and England who was famous for sitting in his chair by the seaside and commanding the tide not to come in. People misinterpreted this as a sign of KC’s pomposity, but it was the opposite: He was showing how no earthly power could rival nature. And thus, in his own way, Ed was saying the administrators plan was hopelessly stupid, without either him saying it outright or, as it turned out, without anyone having any idea what the hell he was talking about anyway.

But when Ed made comments like that, I honestly think he was trying to clarify a point, not obscure it. Ed was a scholarly autodidact who often made esoteric references, but only because they were relevant … at least to people who knew them. Unfortunately, all too often that was a tiny percent of the listeners, which I’m afraid is just Bizness as Usual in a post-literate nation.

The truth

And as for the Drop Anchor Legend itself, here ’tis.

Ed commanded a ship that was in a convoy when suddenly another ship went out of control and was on a collision course with Ed’s. Ever the quick thinker, Ed gave the order to drop anchor, which happened mere seconds before getting rammed. At the other captain’s court martial, because Ed was technically at anchor, he was blameless and the other CO shouldered the full responsibility.

Or so the Legend had it. But was it true?

When Ed and I became friends, I finally confronted him about it, adding something like, “But to me it sounds like total bumpf.”

He gave one of his rare smiles and said, “Well … not all of it.”

And then he explained what really happened.

He was in a convoy forming up outside Norfolk early in the war. Keep in mind, at this point, Ed had almost 10 years’ sea time. Furthermore, he’d spent 1939-41 attached to the British Navy, on Neutrality Patrol, commanding a Corvette, the Brits’ anti-sub ship. Or as he put it, “I was fighting the Germans two years before World War II.”

But he was a rare bird — most of the other COs in the convoy were newbies, rushed into their commands based more on the Navy’s sudden needs than their expertise. They just didn’t have the experience or knowledge to command a ship, so for them it was all OJT (on-the-job training) of the most drastic kind.

Ships are pretty much at the mercy of the seas and winds, and can get pushed all over the deep blue, especially with a captain who has no idea what to do. In the case of waiting for a convoy, the thing to do was drop one of the anchors, let out a bunch of chain, and then use the ship like a pendulum, cruising back and forth, always held on course by the anchor. And that’s what Ed did.

Meanwhile, the other captain didn’t know this, so as soon as he left the safe calm of the harbor, his ship went out of control, and thus the collision. Referring to him and all those inexperienced captains, Ed put it in his usual terse way, “They thought they were still driving around the A&P parking lot.”

So there you have both the Drop Anchor Legend and the true story.

And — in this case at least — the truth is not only stranger than the fiction, but a lot more interesting as well.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today