“A Collision Did Not Occur” – An Early Lesson in Leadership

By Rear Admiral John W. Bitoff, USN (Ret.)

I was deployed aboard the USS Spiegel Grove (LSD 32) the flagship of Amphibious Group 4 during Operation SOLANT AMITY II, April 18 – September 19, 1961, a South Atlantic Amity cruise to Africa and the Indian Ocean. The cruise was initiated by the newly elected President John F. Kennedy to visit African and Indian Ocean countries and provide medical and dental equipment, encyclopedia and other donated items to developing countries in the region. One of the highlights was a port visit to Libreville, Gabon and provide medical supplies to Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his unique jungle hospital. It was often referred to as a friendship cruise. The embarked flag officer was Rear Adm. Eugene B. Fluckey, a recipient of the Medal of Honor and the C.O. of the famous World War II submarine Barb. At the time, Fluckey was the youngest admiral in the Navy and he looked like he came out of central casting. He was lean, athletic and very forward thinking and a perfect U.S. representative at the independence ceremonies of former African colonies we visited during the cruise.

The U.S. Navy Thomaston-class dock landing ship USS Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) underway in the Caribbean, in 1965. Official U.S. Navy photograph from the USS Guam (LPH-9) 1965-66 Cruise Book

The Group consisted of the flagship Spiegel Grove, one of the new Thomaston Class LSDs, the destroyer USS Jonas Ingram, (DD 938), the USS York County (LST 1175) and the USS Chewaucan (AOG 50) a small World War II era auxiliary gasoline tanker designed for inshore refueling. The AOG’s role was to refuel the ships using the close-in method because it was not designed for at-sea/open ocean refueling operations. Upon completion of refueling the small tanker would proceed independently to the nearest port with a petroleum depot, top off and return to the group at some later date. The ship was commanded by a lieutenant with a warrant officer XO and Chief Petty Officers as Officers of the Deck (OODs). The  Chewaucan was built in 1944 with a maximum speed of 14 knots and was ill-suited for the role it was assigned, but under the circumstances, the ship performed in a professional manner.

Sometime during the mid-point of the cruise, we had a scheduled underway replenishment, and in this instance, at-sea refueling. The captain set the Sea Detail on the Spiegel Grove and I was assigned as the Sea Detail Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD). The sea was calm with little or no wind and the C.O.’s approach to the AOG was perfect, albeit very close as required by the close-in method of refueling. The small auxiliary’s top speed of 10 knots was not optimum for an underway refueling, but the ship’s in the group had been able to accomplish the task on previous occasions without difficulty. The AOG sent over her fuel hoses, and refueling operations began as prescribed. While in the midst of refueling the AOG lost propulsion power and sounded the collision alarm. The hoses broke and spilled Navy Special Fuel Oil on both ships until they could stop the pumps. In spite of each C.O. doing everything in their power to avoid a collision the AOG having lost steerage, slid against the port side of the Spiegel Grove scraping paint and dousing the side with oil. The damage was cosmetic and quickly remediated.

The C.O. of Spiegel Grove, Capt. R.A Moore (later a Rear Admiral) who was another World War II submariner, directed the Quartermaster of the Watch to make an entry in the Ship’s Log that a collision had occurred. Admiral Fluckey who was on the bridge observing the operation, countermanded the C.O. and said a collision did not occur. The C.O. looked in the admiral’s direction but did not immediately respond to the order at which point Admiral Fluckey loudly proclaimed “Captain, a collision did not occur.” I was standing between the admiral and the captain and it was the most uncomfortable experience in my brief Navy career. The bridge team remained absolutely quiet and you could feel the tension in the air. Admiral Fluckey called Captain Moore to a corner of the bridge and quietly engaged in what appeared to be a serious one-sided conversation.

I was in awe of Admiral Fluckey for many reasons but I did not fully realize the impact of his actions until later in my career when I commanded a ship as a lieutenant. When I was selected for command, the commanding officer of the destroyer I was serving in as Operations Officer, cautioned me about taking command at such a junior rank. I remember him saying that much would be expected of me regardless of my relative inexperience and that “I would either go to heaven or to hell” and the pitfalls were many and varied. I was terribly disappointed hearing this from an old sea dog because command at sea was the ultimate goal for unrestricted line officers. I did not follow his advice and had a very successful command tour (I went to heaven), but I later learned the efficacy of this experienced destroyerman’s advice when I heard the old Navy saying, “a collision at sea will ruin your entire day.” And as my career progressed, the validity of the statement became readily apparent. In essence, any type of collision regardless of the situation (including groundings and the like) amounted to a career ending event. I am aware of numerous cases where C.O.’s did everything by the book and in fact could not have altered the situation in any respect, but nevertheless met their demise.

This was not always the case: Ens. Chester W. Nimitz was C.O. of USS Decatur, an old destroyer that went aground on a mud bank while entering Bantangas Harbor in the Philippines in 1908 and received a non-career ending public reprimand. Capt. John L. McCrea, commissioning C.O. of the USS Iowa (BB 61) and former Naval Aide to President Roosevelt, grounded the battleship on her shakedown cruise early in World War II and upon reviewing the circumstances he too was officially chastised. But it was not career ending, he acquitted himself in battle and eventually attained the rank of vice admiral. What would have happened to these fine naval officers and especially in the case of Nimitz if he was subject to the attitude that has prevailed in the Surface Warfare community following World War II? How fortunate we are as a Navy and as a nation that the grand strategist and architect of victory in the Pacific was not cashiered as a junior officer. In discussing this subject with a Royal Navy admiral, he opined that the USN was overly punitive on these matters and said the RN looked at minor incidents of this nature as fender benders and gave the example of driving a taxi in London…sooner or later even the most experienced taxi driver will suffer a fender bender.

In the ensuing years I had the honor of serving as Executive Assistant (EA) to Adm. William J. Crowe in all or part of his tours as NATO CINCSOUTH, USNAVEUR, CINCPAC and CJCS. I also served in that position for a short time under Adm. William N. Small. It is natural in these positions to become close to your boss and their families and due to the multiple tours with Admiral Crowe we became very close. Much in the style of Gen. George Patton, Crowe invited me to ‘ruminate’ with him; to challenge him. Admiral Crowe considered this ability to conceptually define and develop tangible solutions to multi-domain problems required provocative debate, not parochialism and sycophancy. It was in this atmosphere that I revealed the “no collision” anecdote about Admiral Fluckey and my enormous admiration for him. Admiral Crowe was not surprised and said it was typical of the leadership style of World War II submariners and added, “I considered staying in surface ships but I considered it too chicken” (chicken meaning too hide bound or focused on minutia). As an interesting aside, Admiral Crowe (a diesel submariner) went on to say that he found surface warfare officers the most talented and well-rounded officers in the Navy partially due to their opportunity for senior service college, staff assignments outside of the Navy and graduate education. I later related the incident to Admiral Small, a naval aviator, and he said “the problem with you people is that you eat your young.”

I have always desired to relate this unique story to a wider audience, if for no other reason than for its human-interest perspective. My admiration for Admiral Fluckey was rekindled years later when I read his book “Thunder Below” the wartime exploits of the Barb which sank the greatest tonnage of any American submarine in World War II. Fluckey used the proceeds of the book’s royalties to pay the travel expenses of the Barb’s crew to attend the ship’s reunions.

I followed the career of the lieutenant who commanded the  Chewaucan and he went on to several destroyer commands including a Destroyer Squadron and wrote a much-touted book on ship handling. A stroke of leadership by a thoughtful leader at a crucial moment saved the career of a very talented officer. Adm. Eugene Fluckey was more than a hero, he was a very special human being who adhered to one of the most important tenants of leadership – take care of your men.

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1 Comments

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    Admiral … great piece of writing … “eat your young” … it’s practically a cliche, yet true … as Goethe was quoted … I think mistakenly … as saying “Be bold and might forces will come to your aid” … when Admiral Nimitz intercepted the Japanese fleet at Midway, it was based on a risky educated hunch as to their location … risk is inseparable from and indispensable to a gallant military career … General Grant replaced General McClellan because he was too cautious … Lincoln called McClellan “the delayer” … the Roman General Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, earned the sobriquet Cunctator because he was a cautious foot dragger during the Second Punic War … the Fabian (Commie) Society, named in honor of Fabius Maximus, believed in a slow gradual transition to communism (fortunately the mission failed and any advances were rolled back by Thatcher) … again, great article … as an aside, I just came back from upstate NY where a medical student joined my family and me at my camp (1000 islands) … after the Academy, he was a submariner for four years … he is still haunted by the experience … flying in the Med and the Caribbean was a cake walk by comparison … Keep Young … Jeff
    JeffreyRSmith@aol.com

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