The View From the Deck Plate

Remember His Name

You probably don’t recognize the name of Albert Kaplan, and frankly that’s a damned shame.

In 1943, Commander Kaplan was the executive officer aboard the USS Mayo, a U.S. Navy destroyer operating in the European Theater.  On September 13th, during the Battle of Salerno, the USS Mayo and the light cruiser USS Brooklyn were called in to support the U.S. Fifth Army, which was pinned down on the beach at Salerno, Italy by superior fire.  Up against three German divisions, more than 600 tanks, and numerous mobile guns, the U.S. invasion force was in danger of being pushed back into the sea.

Albert-D-Kaplan

Commander Albert D. Kaplan

With his commanding officer out of action due to illness, Commander Kaplan assumed command of USS Mayo, and took the destroyer within 500 yards of the beachhead.  Assisted by an Army spotter plane, the ship engaged in direct firefights with German ground forces, hammering the enemy tanks and gun emplacements with 5” naval artillery rounds.  The ship’s fire was so accurate that the spotter pilot recommended shifting the guns to rapid fire.  Commander Kaplan concurred with the recommendation, and gave the order for rapid fire.  Within a minute, USS Mayo’s guns were pumping out a shell every four seconds.

By the end of the engagement, 46 Nazi tiger tanks lay in flaming ruins, and the Mayo’s gun barrels were so overheated that the gray paint was blackened and the gun boots were scorched to something resembling charcoal.  (Every gun barrel on the ship had to be replaced following the battle.)

Official Navy statistics show that the USS Mayo fired 60% of all 5” artillery at Salerno.  The ship was awarded a Battle Star for her part in the engagement, and she is remembered by history as the U.S. Navy’s “tank buster.”  Her commanding officer, Commander Frederic S. Habecker, received the Legion of Merit for his ship’s heroic actions during the combat.

Sadly, the ship’s executive officer—the man who actually led the fight—has been virtually overlooked by history.  I’m certainly not trying to smear the name of Commander Habecker, who was a hero in his own right many times over.  According to the men who served under him, Habecker was a gifted leader, a true warrior, and a fine naval officer.  But in this one crucial battle, it was his second in command who held the reins of leadership and carried the ship and crew to victory.

The world has all but forgotten the name of Albert Kaplan.  When I learned about his extraordinary story, I decided to name a U.S. Navy destroyer after him in one of my books.  If you’ve ever read The Seventh Angel, you may recall the scenes where USS Albert D. Kaplan operates alongside USS Towers at the edge of the Siberian ice pack.  It’s a small thing—naming a fictional warship after a real hero—but it’s my own humble way of keeping alive the legacy of a man who rose to the challenge when his country needed him.

If we do nothing else for our heroes, we should at least remember their names.

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Holding Out For a Hero

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve spent a lot of time lately talking about heroes.  Not the larger-than-life icons who populate so many of our books and movies.  The other kind.  The kind who actually exist.  The men and women who quietly and steadfastly answer the call of duty, stepping forward to do the tedious, difficult, and dangerous tasks that keep America strong.

In most cases we don’t know the names of these people, but we should.  We reap the benefits of their work and their sacrifices every day, but we hardly ever learn who they are.  We rarely have any idea of how much we owe them.  These are the true heroes of our country, and their stories deserve to be heard.

With this in mind, we’ll be making a few changes to NavyThriller.com in the coming days.  We’re adding a ‘Real Heroes’ section, to focus more closely on the kind of heroes who don’t usually attract the media spotlight, or capture the attention of the public.HeroMedal

If you know someone who fits the bill, we invite you to let us know.  Whether it’s your father, your daughter, your neighbor down the street, your sister, your son, or your departed (but not forgotten) grandfather.  If you’ll share his or her story with us, we’ll do our very best to share it with the world.

We’re not necessarily looking for tales of heroism under wartime conditions, although we’re certainly interested in those as well.  But it’s possible to serve an entire career in the military without ever being deployed to a combat zone.  And many of the greatest hazards faced by our service members occur far from any field of battle.

Nor is heroism restricted to the military.  To do any justice to the term, our search for heroes must extend to school teachers, police officers, bus drivers, firefighters, and anyone who rises to the challenge of making our lives safer, or doing their part to build a better world and a brighter future.

You probably already have somebody in mind, don’t you?  Someone you know, who has made a difference in the world.  Perhaps by a single instance of exquisite bravery, or perhaps through a lifetime of uncomplaining dedication to others.

Drop me an email at info@navythriller.com, and tell me a bit about the unrecognized hero in your life.  This is not a homework assignment.  You won’t be graded on spelling, grammar, or eloquence.  Speak from your heart.  If you need a little assistance with polishing the language, I happen to know a writer who can help.

So tell me…  Who is your hero?  It’s time for the stories to be told.

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The Chief

To people outside the Navy, the words ‘the Chief’ have very little meaning.  If anything, they tend to conjure up images of a Native American, decked out in the sort of feathered war bonnet made popular in old cowboy movies.  But to those of us who have walked the steel decks, and kept the weather eye, the words take on an entirely different significance.

My first Chief (that’s Chief Petty Officer for you non-Navy types) was my boot camp Company Commander.  His duties as CC pretty much overshadowed his actual rank, so I don’t really include him in the khaki pantheon.  All of my memories of him involve military creases, inspections, and pumping out pushups in large multiples of ten.  Oh, and I remember my CC’s tonsils.  He spent an inordinate amount of time standing two inches away from my face, and shouting at the top of his lungs.  In any case, I never thought of him as the Chief, and I certainly never dared to call him that.  Anything less than Sir was likely to bring an invitation to something called a Mini-Motivational Tour, which was not nearly as entertaining as it sounds.

CPO-AnchorsI encountered my first real Chief aboard my first ship, a guided missile cruiser based out of Yokosuka, Japan in the early 1980s.  Actually, he was a Senior Chief, but it’s the same club, and they play by the same rules.  I reported aboard on a Saturday morning, and the Senior Chief was off the ship for the weekend.  I didn’t get my first peek at him until the following Monday morning, by which time I’d heard two days of sea stories about him from the guys who had the weekend duty.  Nearly every story seemed to end with the Senior Chief pulling some sort of minor miracle out of his garrison cap.

After all the buildup, I was prepared for a giant of a man: eight feet tall, and covered with hair.  At the very least, he should have been hovering in midair over the deck plates, or bathed in golden light.  But the man didn’t look like anything special.  His boondockers touched the deck just like mine did, and he appeared to make do with the same ordinary sunlight as the rest of us mortals.  If anything, he was a little shorter than average, and seemed to be a bit inclined toward pudginess.  I had to give him points for his uniform, though.  His khakis were immaculate, crisply starched and sharply creased, but—other than that—he looked like any average guy off the street.

I began to feel stupid for believing the stories.  I was the new kid on board, fresh out of basic training.  Obviously, the duty personnel had decided to have a bit of fun with me.  And, I decided, the much-lauded Senior Chief was just an average, ordinary guy.  Boy was I ever wrong.

To say that Senior Chief was superhuman would certainly be an exaggeration.  But I’d feel pretty comfortable using words like ‘amazing,’ or ‘phenomenal.’  His tactical skills were superb.  He could rattle off the contents of every publication and manual in the safe.  He could diagram complex search and attack plans from memory.  He could tell you which plans worked, which ones didn’t, and why.  He knew frequencies and operating modes for every tactical sonar in every navy.  He could calculate torpedo gyro angles in his head, and he could practically smell a Soviet diesel submarine operating on batteries.  Somehow, and I still don’t understand this, he managed to turn an aging cruiser with a thirty year old tube-powered sonar into one of the top Anti-Submarine Warfare ships in the Pacific.  Other ships had quieter engineering plants, and better sonar systems.  We had Senior Chief.

His expertise didn’t end with Anti-Submarine Warfare, either.  He seemed to know a lot about everything.  When he gave me my welcome aboard interview, I discovered that he knew quite a lot about me.  I’d been on the ship less than three days, and he’d already been through my Personnel Record.  He remembered my home town, my advancement goals, and my final grades from Sonar Technician A-School.  He knew from my ASVAB scores (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) that I had an aptitude for mechanics and electronics, solid English skills, good spatial orientation abilities, and a weakness in Mathematics.  I discovered that he had ordered several self-instruction books to help me improve my math skills, and he offered to help me find a tutor.  This wasn’t to help me overcome a job-related deficiency.  My skills were more than sufficient for Target Motion Analysis, Acoustic Range Predictions, and the other sorts of calculations common in Anti-Submarine Warfare.  Senior Chief was preparing me for college, long before I knew I’d be moving in that direction.  His interest in me wasn’t limited to the two or so years I’d be serving in his Division.  He was already thinking about the rest of my life.

I learned a thousand other things from Senior Chief.  I learned that a good leader rewards his personnel in public, but disciplines them in private.  I learned how to think outside the box in a tactical situation, long before the phrase ‘outside the box’ had even been coined.  I learned that fixing problems is more effective than fixing blame.  I learned that people tend to live up to your expectations, or down to them, depending on where you set the bar.  I learned about leadership, self-reliance, and personal integrity.  I learned to value my own skills and abilities.

Over the twenty-something years that followed, I worked for quite a few Chiefs.  With one notable (and ignoble) exception, every Chief Petty Officer I ever served under was a leader, a teacher, a mentor, and an expert in his field.  Between them, they taught me tactics, acoustics, oceanography, electronics, discipline, sacrifice, confidence, and the value of preparation.

When it came time for me to put on my own khakis, as my sponsor pinned the anchors to my collar, I couldn’t help but measure myself against the standard set by Senior Chief, and by all the other Chiefs whose guidance helped to shape me as a person and as a Sailor.  On the day that I made Chief, when the promotion ceremony was over and the crowd had gone home, I took out my little green notebook and started my list of things to accomplish.  At the very top of the list, I wrote three words.  I continued writing those three words in every notebook I carried until the day I retired.  Be the Chief.  That was the first action item on my list, and my first responsibility.

I hope that I lived up to it.

(Originally published on Military.com 01/26/05)

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Rogue Avenger

If a single U.S. Trident missile sub went rogue, it would instantly become the fifth most powerful nuclear aggressor on planet Earth.  According to some estimates, that lone submarine would possess more firepower than the combined nuclear arsenals of India, Pakistan, and North Korea.  More than enough warheads to start World War III.  Maybe even enough to end it.

Rogue-AvengerOf course the Navy has extraordinary safeguards in place to prevent this kind of nightmare scenario from ever occurring.  Mechanical and electronic lock-outs, security protocols, safety procedures, psychological screenings, and all manner of protections that go well beyond both my knowledge and my imagination.  But no defense is ever perfect, and all of our protective measures have one thing in common…  They depend on the loyalty of human beings.

Which raises an extremely unsettling question…  What happens when the humans fail?  (Or worse, what happens when they deliberately sabotage the system they’re supposed to be protecting?)  That’s a damned scary thought.  It also happens to be one hell of a good idea for a military techno-thriller.  I’d love to write that book.  Unfortunately, John R. Monteith already beat me to it with his white-hot submarine warfare novel, Rogue Avenger.

Just in case you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading this book, allow me to quote from the jacket text…

THEY STOLE HIS FUTURE.  HE STOLE THEIR SUBMARINE.

The accident changed everything…  One moment, Lieutenant Jake Slate was going about his duties aboard the ballistic missile submarine, USS Colorado.  The next second, he was sprawled on the deck plates in a spreading puddle of blood and hydraulic fluid.  But it wasn’t the injury that ruined his life and doomed his military career.  It was the rescue effort.

Now he’s being thrown to the wolves to cover up the misdeeds of a superior officer, and Jake doesn’t care for the role of sacrificial lamb.

Blinded by rage and unsure of his future, he finds himself at the center of a treacherous plot to hijack the Colorado and sell her nuclear warheads to a foreign power.  Jake no longer knows who he can trust.  He doesn’t know what the future holds.  He really only knows one thing.  He will have his revenge.

If that doesn’t give your pulse rate a little boost, you should consult your doctor, because you may be dead.

In addition to being a talented writer, John Monteith is a former U.S. Navy officer who served aboard a Trident sub.  His knowledge and experience come through clearly in his writing.  He’s done his time on nuclear deterrent patrols.  He’s had plenty of time to think about what could go wrong, and he does an excellent job weaving some of his darker speculations into page-turning adventure fiction.

I first met John a few years ago, at a conference for the Military Writers’ Society of America.  I was there to shake hands and meet other authors.  He was there to accept an award for this novel.  I picked up a copy from the display tables, leafed through a couple of pages, and suddenly I was hooked.

When I decided to start the Stealth Books imprint, John was the first author I invited to join.  My goal from the beginning has been to attract smart authors who write smart books for smart readers.  John certainly fits the bill, and so does this novel.

I can sum up my opinion of Rogue Avenger in seven words: I wish I had written this book.

Rogue Avenger is now available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.com, along with John’s follow-on novels, Rogue Betrayer, Rogue Crusader, and Rogue Defender.

Click here to visit John’s website, SubThriller.com.

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Six Frigates – Book Review

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

As a career Sailor, a writer of naval fiction, and a bit of an amateur nautical historian, I like to flatter myself that I’m fairly well versed in the history of the United States Navy.  After reading Ian W. Toll’s handling of our navy’s formative years, I’m quite content to admit my own vanity and ignorance.  Six Frigates, if I may abuse a metaphor, blew me out of the water.

six-frigatesI bought the book expecting to read descriptions of naval engagements in the age of sail, and Ian Toll certainly delivers in that area.  He makes you feel the thunder of hurtling grape shot, and smell the hot iron and smoke of combat at sea.  He also goes a step further, and pulls back the curtain on battles of an entirely different sort; the kind that rage across the debating floors of government.

Most books I’ve read about this period tend to gloss over the authorization and building of these famous first ships, skipping from the Naval Act of 1794 (which approved their construction), to their launchings beginning in 1797, to the USS Constellation’s historic defeat and capture of the French frigate Insurgente in February of 1799.  Until Six Frigates, I happily agreed with the tendency to jump forward to the action.  The Barbary pirates…  The USS Constitution’s victorious engagements against HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, HMS Cyane, and HMS Levant.  That often-referenced moment during the War of 1812 when some unknown seaman shouted, “Hurrah, her sides are made of iron!”

But Mr. Toll’s extraordinary history also captures the skirmishes that erupted before the keels were laid.  It turns out that the politics of military procurement were every bit as nasty in the eighteenth-century as they are in the twenty-first.  The decision to construct the U.S. Navy’s first purpose-built warships was a source of bitter contention.  On the one side, the Federalist Party—formed by Alexander Hamilton—saw a strong naval force as an indispensable resource for a growing nation.  On the opposite side of the aisle, Thomas Jefferson and the newly-emerging Republican Party were fiercely against building a navy.  The country was still staggering under the debts of the Revolutionary War, and the Republicans argued that the cost of maintaining a navy would cripple the fledgling national economy.

Toll reveals that the challenges kept on coming, even after the appropriations were constitution-vs-guerriereapproved.  The ship designer, Joshua Humphreys, decided that the major timbers and framing for the frigates must be cut from southern live oak, which was known for its extreme strength and durability.  The right kind of trees could only be found in quantity along the Georgia coast, in areas that were little more than swamp.  So the War Department ordered a ninety-man logging crew into the swamp to retrieve the needed timber.  Within a week, nearly all of the workers were struck down by malaria.  A visitor compared the stricken logging camp to an army field hospital after a hideous battle.  Construction on the ships had not even started yet, and already the casualties were beginning to mount.

I could toss out more examples, but I won’t.  My point is simply this…  Ian W. Toll touches on many details that might have been overlooked by other authors.   As a consequence, he brings an entirely new level of nuance to America’s evolution as a naval power.  Six Frigates is easily one of the most informative and enjoyable books I’ve ever read about this chapter of our navy’s history.

I rate this book as 5 (out of 5) Anchors.Anchor-Ratings-5

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