The Breakaway Song Tradition

by RADM Sonny Masso

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.

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10 Comments

  1. Bob O'Donnell

    Reply

    USS John Hancock (DD-981). On our way to the Persian Gulf in 1988, we chose “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun; cause that’s where we were goin’.

  2. Capt Phil Resch

    Reply

    As Sonny said breakaway songs are a great tradition. One of the first I remember is an Navy Oiler playing “Happy Trails” to you. Later as an XO on a Navy Oiler I remember the Wardroom Officers discussing several songs. Several Chiefs were present any they did not recognize many of the songs. After much discussion we selected two songs. Ramblin Man by the Allman Brothers and “Break on Through” by the Doors. Over 40 years later I can still see the Senior Chief hanging his head down and mumbling something about what has happened to his Navy. I hope the Chief and many others are living the lyrics of Ramblin Man: Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
    Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can
    And when it’s time for leavin’
    I hope you’ll understand
    That I was born a ramblin’ man

    Fair winds and following seas Shipmates

    • Tatiana Puschnigg

      Reply

      Thanks Phil! Great speaking with you this morning (this is Sonny, NOT Tatiana, although she loves you, too!)

  3. Dan Thompson

    Reply

    USS Ramage (DDG 61). We never adopted a single tune. The commissioning CMC, BTCM (SW) Randy Hyde, took noms from the crew and selected a different one for each breakaway. All good – some great!

    Compliments to Adm Masso. Superb story.

    • RADM Sonny Masso

      Reply

      Dan, Thank you for your response. I think whenever the CMC, BTCM (did you mean BMCM?) and the crew decides, it’s a win-win! USS Ramage (DDG-61) “Par Excellence”……not just a slogan but a character, ethos, and state of mind! Sonny

  4. Scott Benning

    Reply

    Great article! The break way song was a celebration to the crew of a job well done! It was hard work but only accomplished due to great teamwork. From the gunners mates taking the shot to get the shot line to the replenishment ship, to the young Sailors
    Pulling the line across with the fueling hose or line to transfer stores of food and supplies and the best is when the helo would bring your mail across. The helo and flight deck teams also moved supplies, but nothing was better than having you mail come onboard. It was all hard work made possible by great leaders who trained their teams and safety observers ensuring safety for all. It was all long and hard work by an amazing crew and the breakaway song meant we were done with the possibility of rest. Unless of course you were in the supply department and had to stow everything with the help of other crew members. Again, another teamwork evolution, but that break away song got you closer and enabled a celebration of success by a great team in a very dangerous environment. Also let’s not forget the navigation who was able to keep close without collision, the engineering team providing propulsion, the OPs team ensuring visuals on contacts for a safely navigated event, all with the deck department leading the replenishment stations. Talk about teamwork! Teamwork does make the dream work and that song, the break away song provides smiles and rest for an entire team. There are few places in the world that you will see this level of teamwork! HOOYAH SHIPMATES past and present who make the dream work. Enjoy your break away song!

  5. Garry Hall

    Reply

    Hey Sonny – I not only picked the breakaway song but then sang it over the 1MC. It was Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf. The crew loved that I would sing along with Steppenwolf. Also they loved our slogan (the Admiral didn’t like it) – “My Captain can kick your Captain’s a$$.” I continued to poke the bear by giving the Admiral a set of 6 beer glasses with that slogan. During my command tour only one captain challenged me and I told him the CMC handles all my light work. Great times and memories. Admiral Sonny – keep up the great work!

  6. Reply

    I regret to say I can’t remember any of the numerous break-away songs used on the ships I served on. But I do remember many visits to Morehead City returning from Med cruises to drop off our marines after long deployments. At reveille we would always play Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America Today. It was always an awesome feeling.
    Joe Greene

  7. Jim McKinney

    Reply

    Great article, my friend. My favorite breakaway song was my first, The William Tell Overture (aka The Lone Ranger Theme). It worked exceedingly well for the 1200 psi steam plant on USS Towers (DDG 9) as the piece started slowly but quickly built to a fevorous pitch, much like the steam plant.

  8. Jim McMillan

    Reply

    Hi Bob, it was a great song and I’m glad you explained that it was our destination and not our blazing speed of 30 kts that was the impetus for our breakaway song. Except for the mines, sharks and sea snakes, that was a pretty entertaining deployment. Hope you’re doing well, Jim McMillan, CSO

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