Of iron ships and wooden men

After four decades of trying not to be overrun in the Trenches of Academe, I learned a few things about teaching. And foremost among them is that while there are many qualities of excellent teachers, three are absolutely essential.

First, they need an encyclopedic knowledge of their discipline.

Second, they need to be able to communicate that knowledge to their students.

And third, they need to know how to run a class effectively and efficiently. In other words, they need first-rate leadership skills.

While I never thought about it at the time, I gained valuable insights into leadership in the Navy. There was no formal instruction, no classes or workshops, and I was never in a position of power. Instead, I learned the way all of us learn anything — OJT (On the Job Training). In short, I paid close attention how the NCOs and officers in supervisory positions acted. I learned as much from the worst ones as I did from the best, and at the top of the “worst” list was the captain of my first duty station in Bremerhaven, Germany.

He was a tall, gaunt, petty dictator with the complexion and personality of a day-old cadaver. Even though 90% of the command was made up of enlisted men, he had almost nothing to do with us. In fact, the only times we saw him up close were on his quarterly inspections of the radio shack, when he pointed out such egregious failings as a dust mote on a table leg or a half-filled soap dispenser in the head.

Beyond that, our sole contact with him was his dicta in the Plan of the Day. The POD was a daily posting of various goings-on, both on base and in the Navy. The captain’s posts were reminders of petty regulations, couched in veiled threats for those who didn’t comply. For example, one day there might be a note about the proper angle at which a white hat should be worn (even though no Salty Dog ever wore his “dixie cup” according to the regulation). Or on another day there might be a warning about the dangers of inappropriate relationships with German nationals (as if any horned-out barracks rat even considered an appropriate relationship in the first place).

Ultimately, his only skill was lowering morale, which led to his being un-fondly dubbed “Old Numb Nuts.”

By now you might wonder how such a lousy leader ever made captain. If you’d been in the Navy, you’d already know the answer — he was a “ring knocker.” That is, he was an Annapolis graduate.

If you graduated from Annapolis and hadn’t sunk one of our own ships or been caught en flagrante delicto in a Subic Bay cathouse, making captain was a sure thing.

But although he got the rank, ultimately that’s all he got: While all his classmates were commanding aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, or giving top secret briefings to Pentagon mucky-mucks, he was the CO of a rag-tag 250-man communication outfit in Nowheresstadt, Deutschland — on an equally rag-tag army base, no less. So, after 20 years of active duty he’d gained all the power and status of the guy at boot camp who showed the VD films.

But on July 1, 1970 he got his wings clipped, but good, when Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations.

Fighting the “good” fight…

After being Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, Admiral Zumwalt was appointed CNO by Richard Nixon. At 49, he was the youngest CNO. He was also brilliant, dashing and determined to modernize the Navy from the top on down. He made changes in the fleet still felt today. He also dedicated himself to improving all aspects of all sailors’ lives and getting rid of outmoded or petty regulations. He announced his changes in messages he called Z-Grams.

Each Z-Gram went Navy-wide as soon as it was put into effect, and he was one busy boy, as his first Z-gram was on his first day as CNO, and his last on his last day. In all, he racked up 121 in a mere four years. But it was Z-Gram 71 that raised the most hell, and that cut Old Numb Nuts’ legs out from under him.

Z-Gram 121, on 21 January 1971, a week after my 24th birthday, was the best belated b’day present I ever got. It allowed all Navy personnel to grow beards.

The Navy had a funky relationship with beards. When I enlisted, and for a long time before, men were allowed to grow beards while at sea or at isolated duty stations, if allowed by unit commander. Anywhere else, however, they were verboten. But now the follicular floodgates flew open — for all of us stationed everywhere.

It was a smart move on Zumwalt’s behalf. In reality, it was a tiny concession, but it yielded big results: Almost the whole Navy was young guys, at time when all young civilian guys had long hair and facial hair. So now we could at least delude ourselves into thinking we looked as cool as the those running wild and free, which was a definite morale booster.

However, on 22 January, Old Numb Nuts showed his true colors, when he posted his addendum to Z-gram 71. Yes, we could have beards, he granted … but we could not grow them while on duty. So if we grew a beard over leave, then we could keep it when we came back. Otherwise, it was Ix-Nay on the Eards-bay.

It was Catch-22 at its best and a perfect example of ONN’s micro-focused power-tripping. But in doing it, he made a damned fool of himself, and made our low opinion of him drop even lower.

…and losing

Here’s the thing: Admiral Zumwalt didn’t get where he did without knowing how to pat peeps on the back or kick ’em in the slats, and do a masterful job of both. A day or so after ONN’s modification of Z-Gram 71, we got another announcement from the CNO. Of course, ONN was hardly the only officer or senior NCO who hated beards and long hair, so I’m sure after Z-Gram 71 hit print, CO’s everywhere added their own special conditions and prohibitions. The only problem was while there were thousands of high-ranking Navy officers and NCO’s, there was only one CNO, and he was the boss.

In Admiral Zumwalt’s follow-up he said, simply and unambiguously, that Z-Grams were direct orders and no man jack in This Man’s Navy, regardless of rank or command status, could countermand his orders.

That put the issue to rest, once and for all. It also put almost every young sailor’s razor to rest as well.

The irony of the whole shmeer is if ONN had any sense of leadership, he would’ve done the smart thing, which was to do nothing. Instead, he had to strut his stuff and let us know who was The Man, which as it turned out, was not him. So while he could’ve come across as Mr. Roberts, he instead ended up looking like Captain Queeg — and a Captain Queeg who just got very publicly spanked by the CNO.

A few months later, ONN’s time in Bremerhaven was up and he went to a new assignment, which for all I knew — and cared — was showing VD films at boot camp.

And given his leadership skills, it probably should have been.


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