|" How The Captain Got
to Know Me "
C. Roger Wallin, Commander, USNR (Ret.)
Returning from sea, our guided missile cruiser entered the mouth of the Delaware river in a raging northeast snow storm. Destination, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Tension on the bridge was high. This was a challenging navigation and shiphandling situation, since visibility was just about nil, and there was considerable underway shipping to worry about, increasing as the approach to the river narrowed.
Our commanding officer was due to be relieved as soon as we made port. He was within hours of completing a successful deep draft combatant command assignment and a comfortable desk job was waiting for him in Washington. Safe arrival in Philly meant another career ticket punch towards the stars.
At a time like this, the Captain wanted all the talent that he could find to help him complete the cruise without any dents in the hull. An advocate of the "more is better" philosophy of watch organization, he decreed that the already substantial sea detail contingent be augmented by just about anyone else who was within reach.
I was a very junior Ensign standing some kind of a perfunctory ""don't get in the way" watch in C.I.C. when I was told to report to OOD on the bridge. It was crowded with officers and senior enlisted specialists, but I was told to find a place to stand inside the pilot house at the secondary radar repeater that was set to monitor only very short range contacts. Primary radar tracking was being done by the OOD and JOOD on the enclosed bridge, outside, as well as by the people down below in “Combat”.
The Captain, seated uneasily in his huge chair on the starboard side of the pilot house, seemed to be smoking two cigarettes at a time and at a rate that is usually seen only in cartoons. Despite the number of people assembled for this occasion, there was very little sound present. A murmured conversation between the OOD and the Navigator was barely discernible, but otherwise the only words spoken were helm and engine orders, given and repeated.
Everyone who had been mustered to reinforce the watch was finally in place and we all waited for something important to happen. Our noble man-of-war crept slowly ahead, while merchant ships which seemed unconcerned or uninformed about the weather approached us or overtook us at reckless speeds appropriate only for interstate highway commerce. Grease pencils squeaked on Plexiglas status boards as the number of reported contacts increased and approached CPA. The air was blue and smelly from the Old Man's butts.
At this point, for some unknown reason, the conversation between the OOD and the Navigator became louder and more animated. I believe that the OOD was simply informing his learned associate of how he had assigned the special watchstanding resources assembled to meet the current crisis. However, it seemed that the OOD was trying to say something of greater importance when he suddenly called out “I've got Ensign Wallin on the short range ‘scope !”
The captain leapt from his chair. “WHERE..... WHERE is it? What's the RANGE and BEARING?", he shouted.
Politely, the OOD calmed the skipper with assurance that there was no ""SS Wallin Maru" bearing down on us. He was only articulating an administrative decision.
The tension was broken by a few unstifled chuckles and several broad grins that appeared among the multitude. The Captain, himself, became so pleased to have escaped collision with a phantom freighter that he actually relaxed a bit. He made his way to the port side and asked me, in a rather kind, fatherly tone, how I was doing. It was the first, and only, conversation we ever held on board that ship. But the captain got to know my name.
P.S. Shortly after, the sun came out. We moored safely at PNSY. The captain and I had our next conversation when we met at our cruiser's reunion, 32 years later, but I did not mention the incident of the “SS Wallin Maru".
The above incident occurred on board the USS Little Rock (CLG-4) during January 1961. I remember it also as the day of John F. Kennedy's inauguration.
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Reprinted from Fall 2005 LitComs