Monday, May 24, 2010

Messing With a Midshipman, Part I

Summer patrols on a “boomer,” or Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, often meant we would carry midshipmen with us. On one such patrol late in the 1960’s my ship was burdened with carrying two of them. One of them has faded from my memory, but the other stands out as real today as he was then.

I was a second class Torpedoman’s Mate standing topside watch on the USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) operating out of the Holy Loch in Scotland. We were tied up alongside a submarine tender, the identity of which escapes me. In order to board the Lee, one had to first board the submarine tender and then navigate to where we were.

The topside watch’s responsibility was to keep an eye on things on the exterior of the ship as well as to make sure all people boarding the sub had business doing so. Because the submarine was so large, we usually had two topside watches.

On this particular watch I was standing by the brow (what landlubbers would call a gang plank) when two midshipmen crossed over from the tender to us. It is Navy custom to turn and salute the flag as one crosses the edge of the ship and then to turn and salute the watch, requesting permission to come aboard. This the first midshipman did.

The second midshipman did no such thing. He barged aboard, dropped his sea bag, and handed me his orders. I said to him, “You did not render honors to the flag and you did not salute the watch. Don’t you know what you’re supposed to do when boarding a Naval ship?” His response was quick and short: “I don’t have to. My father is the commanding general at — and here he named an Army base in Europe — and he’s senior to you and everybody else on this ship.”

For some reason, I took an immediate dislike to him. Our paths would become intertwined over the next several weeks as we sailed silently under the ocean and in those weeks the antagonism would build along with a certain degree of mutual respect and friendship.

The Ethan Allen class submarines, to which the Robert E. Lee belonged, had large torpedo rooms. At the aft end of the room was a small compartment which made a second level, called the hanging gardens and in which first class petty officers had their berthing. Access to it was a vertical ladder mounted on the bulkhead, or wall. In the floor of the hanging gardens was a 12” X 12” hatch. It was directly next to this hatch that midshipman #2 was to sleep.

I was determined to bring midshipman #2 down a peg or two but in the Navy’s pecking order, midshipman ranked above Warrant Officer (W-1) and are accorded all courtesies given to commissioned officers. That limited what I, an enlisted man, could do. Fortunately for me, midshipmen were not held in high regard by officers or enlisted so I knew I would have some lee-way in harassing our guest. I would just have to bide my time for the right opportunities.

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