The Navy Breakaway Song Tradition
by RADM Sonny Masso
August 8th, 2019
I was listening to Deep Tracks on Sirius/XM the other day in my car and I heard the Eagles song, “Midnight Flyer.” It was one of those songs that you sometimes hear that make you want to pull over, stop the car, and just listen. While not viewed by the listening marketplace as one of the more popular Eagles songs, it was hugely important to the Sailors who went to sea on the USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964). “Midnight Flyer” was our ship’s “Breakaway” song.
A breakaway song is very important to a ship’s crew. It is played at the commencement of the breakaway your ship makes from another ship when receiving fuel (beans, bullets, black oil), stores, spare parts, or other necessities. Generally, the ship that provides these necessities are oilers, ammunition ships, or Aircraft Carriers. Fossil-fuel ships need gas at least every three days. When I was a young officer, the ISIC (immediate senior in command) mandated that all ships refuel at night at least 25% of the time. In point of fact, we almost never refueled during daylight hours. We always refueled, took stores, ammo, or spare parts (don’t forget 16mm movies) in the middle of the night.
A complex replenishment can take from three to five hours and generally involves most of the crew. If you are taking two stations of fuel, and stores amidships, all hands are handling lines and loading the groceries onto the elevators. If you are taking on ammo (you won’t be taking fuel at the same time) the labor moving the bullets and or other missile-type-ordnance is also very manpower intensive. In short, most of the crew is engaged in the evolution and most are very happy when it’s time to maneuver away from the providing ship.
This maneuver is called a “breakaway”. It is a sound and time-honored process involving meticulous steps to ensure the safety of both ships and their personnel. Usually the engineering team on the receiving ship announces a 15-minute standby meaning the tanks are nearly topped off. This is followed by a back blow, or high velocity clearing of the fuel hose. Finally, the probe that the hose is seated in at the refueling rig is disconnected and gently sent back to the delivery ship so as not to drop it into the sea between the ships, or to potentially injure a sailor handing any lines. Once the probe and hose are back aboard the delivery ship, the span line that the hose traveled over by is disconnected and sent back to the delivery ship. When all lines are clear of the ships, the officer of the deck sounds one long blast of the ships whistle and the boatswains mate of the watch commences the ships breakaway song.
This moment on a surface ship is magical and involves all of one’s senses. First, you smell the fuel from the disconnection of the hose. Next you hear the ships whistle. Then, you feel the power of the LM-2500 Gas Turbines as they metaphorically accelerate from zero to 60 mph in two seconds. Lastly, over the 1MC (ships master communications network) your breakaway song is played as loud as physically possible. “Ooooo Midnight Flyer. Engineer won’t you let your whistle moan.…..Ooooo Midnight Flyer, paid my dues and I feel like traveling home..”
It gave me chills then and gives me chills now.
The best breakaway songs are those chosen by the crew. When a CO stipulates his own choice, the song often doesn’t resonate as it should to the crew. Sometimes senior leaders need to subordinate their preference of Perry Como or the Lennon Sisters to the crew to enjoy the sweet sounds of Motley Crue, AC/DC, Guns n’ roses, the Boss, or in our case the Eagles. There are legendary breakaway songs in the fleet and a good one pulls a crew together like nothing else.
Ships all have nicknames, personalities, and reputations that pretty much stay the same throughout the life of the ship. A ships reputation can be changed on a dime by the demonstration of great seamanship, pride, and a little flair. Since nearly the entire crew participates in an underway replenishment, all hands experience the little things that make a ship at sea great. The breakaway song is the dot to the eye—the exclamation point of the evolution—the asterisk—the overt act of excellence, accomplishment and pride of a ship of the line at sea doing God’s work!
What was your favorite breakaway song, or Unrep memory? What does this blog make you also think about? Why don’t you take a minute and share your thoughts?
Next month we’re featuring “Tiger Cruises”… Stay tuned and thank you for reading and participating.