Category Archives: The View From the Deck Plate
For the record, I’ve never claimed to be a poet. Except for an occasional bawdy Haiku, I rarely turn my creative energies toward the poetic arts (or whatever they’re supposed to be called). But every once in a while, something vaguely poem-like will crawl into my head and set up housekeeping until I banish the damned thing by writing it down.
The short piece below is called ‘Tag.’ I wrote it in when I was serving aboard a guided missile destroyer during the Cold War, after a long night of playing chase with a Soviet Echo II class cruise missile submarine. I have no idea how it stacks up as poetry. As I’ve said before, this is not my forte. Despite its lack of artistry, I think it does a fairly good job of capturing the tension of stalking a (potentially) hostile sub back in the bad old days, when any encounter with the adversary could end in combat.
On May 17, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave the commencement address at the University of Texas. Drawing on his experiences as a Navy SEAL, he offered the graduating students 10 lessons for changing the world.
Here’s a bit of wisdom from the mind and heart of a real American hero…
A few weeks ago, Commander Dan Dolan of the Naval War College had the opportunity to interview the commanding officer of the Navy’s newest combatant ship, USS Zumwalt. The lead vessel in a class of three next-generation destroyers, the Zumwalt isn’t just the most innovative ship in the U.S. Navy surface fleet. She is—quite literally—the most technologically advanced warship ever constructed.
Published on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website, the interview transcript offers a rare glimpse into the mind of Commander James Kirk, who is preparing to assume command of warfighting capabilities which have never before been operationally deployed.
Prior to the interview, Commander Dolan was kind enough to invite me to submit a few questions of my own. As a student of naval warfare, I’m intensely curious about what impacts the Zumwalt class will have on the future of combat at sea, so several of my questions were centered on the integration of new technologies into current tactical doctrine. Some of my questions made it into the final version of the interview, but my favorite one didn’t end up making the editor’s cut.
I think it was a good question, and I believe that Commander Kirk’s response was worthy of publication. I obviously can’t influence what the Naval Institute chooses to publish, so I asked Commander Dolan’s permission to reprint it here.
My question was this…
Who was the most heroic person you ever served with?”
Here is Commander Kirk’s response…
I have served with a lot of folks that have done a lot of great things for our Navy. I look at it in the context of great leaders that I have served under, great peers that I worked alongside of and great sailors that I have worked with on the deck plates. When I reflect I can look up and see the great sea Captains that I have served with… Admirals Kemp and Hebner, both now retired, and Captains Villotti, Woodridge, Hoffman, Campbell and Wagner, each one of these officers were great leaders.
Then you look to your left and right and you see the Officers whom you served with, and you really felt like you were part of a band of brothers and sisters that could accomplish what needed to be done because you knew that together you could overcome any obstacle.
Then you look to those you worked alongside on the deck plates. I still think of GSE2 Frasier, when I watched the work he did, I was amazed at this young sailor who could trouble shoot, fix, and operate the plant under very difficult circumstances at times. Every day you are either getting better, or you are getting worse. You never stay the same, and it is only human effort that makes you continue to get better as a ship, or as a person. It is the folks that hook themselves up to the sled and pull, and keep pulling no matter what the difficulties, that I consider heroic.
I was honestly expecting Commander Kirk to provide one or two names as examples of the heroism he has encountered in the fleet. He certainly did that, but he went beyond, and gave us his personal litmus test for spotting heroes. They’re the ones who hook themselves up to the sled, and keep pulling no matter what the difficulties.
To this old Chief Petty Officer, that sounds like a pretty damned good definition. I hope Commander Kirk doesn’t mind too much that I’ll be using it myself in the future. I wish him, his crew, and his fine new ship the very best of fortune.
May God bless USS Zumwalt, and all who sail in her.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.