By Philip Gardocki
This is my favorite sea story. It happened to me. And, if only one thing had changed, I could have been sent to the Marine-guarded prison of Leavenworth. That is, if the Navy would have stood for the embarrassment of the courts-martial!
In 1981, we were at sea, in the middle of the Atlantic, and on the way to Europe. I was on “Roving Patrol.” That is to say, I was armed with a .45 automatic pistol, and my job was to roam the ship, in a random fashion, checking on the sensitive areas of the ship. I was to report my existence to two different places, the missile house, and the bridge, every half hour, but not on the half hour. It was during this watch that the ship was also conducting a Man Overboard Drill.
During a Man Overboard Drill, every crewman gets mustered and counted, in order to find out who, and how many men were overboard. Usually, a few random individuals are pulled aside before the drill to test the system and woe betide the department head who fails to report those missing people.
Now there are a host of rules regarding the behaviors of a Roving Patrol, all of which make sense by themselves and most make sense in groups. However, some, as we are about to see, come in direct conflict with other rules, and common sense has to be relied upon.
One of the rules is that the Roving Patrol cannot be summoned anywhere by electronic means. This is to prevent an intruder who has access to the intercom, in Navy terms, the “1MC”, from summoning the Rover to his doom. However, the Man Overboard Drill is such a summoning and was not covered by any exception. However, we were a thousand miles from land; and clearly this was not some attempt to disable the Rover, and, so, I reported to my Man Overboard Drill muster area.
While we were all mustered, below decks, in our living compartments, another order was issued on the intercom, “Roving Patrol, lay to the bridge!”
At first, I did not comprehend what I had just heard. Here was a broadcast order that is a cause for a security alert. You could see the realization filter through the group below decks, as most of us were on the Guard Force and were the first responders for a security alert.
We dashed to armory, pausing only to make sure that the missile house guard was at his post. En-route, the order was repeated, “Roving Patrol, lay to the bridge!” I could not think of why this was happening, particularly during a Man Overboard Drill. I did not think it a coincidence; this request for my presence, coupled with the fact that all the ship's personnel, not directly involved with rescue efforts, were effectively locked below decks.
The armory corridor was flooded with personnel, because, normally, a security alert is done after working hours, so the normal duty force of 10-12 men had swelled to 50 or so. Three things became evident:
1) The Duty Gunners Mate, who has the keys to the armory, was not present.
2) None of our security officers or chief petty officers were present.
3) While I was not quite the most senior man present, I was the Rover, and lacking any clear line of command, I was in charge.
Here is the information I had: there was a strange coincidence of timing a security alert with a Man Overboard Drill, this had the effect of locking most of the crew below decks and there was the lack of any command personnel. This led me to conclude that there was a mutiny going on, led by the XO. Even at that time, I knew this was irrational, but did not have time to come up with alternatives. All this was moot however, as our preassigned duties were clear. We, the Guard Force, were required to secure the ship until a lawful chain of command could be established, and while lacking in weapons, we did have five times our normal numbers to perform this task. Being a war gamer, I had already laid out in my mind the tactics to secure all our assigned objectives, including taking the bridge in a three-pronged attack. I also knew I was going to Leavenworth for taking advantage of this situation to, however briefly, take command of this ship, if only for the purpose of returning it the Captain.
Now, what was actually happening was this: the ship was at Man Overboard Drill stations. All the security officers were performing their alternate duties with that in mind - one was driving the ship, one was in a boat in the water, and one was directing recovery efforts. One was the Duty Officer of the Deck, while the XO and CO were on the bridge wing observing the activities. All chief petty officers were conducting musters of their men, and all first classes were being mustered at their muster stations. The Duty Gunner’s Mate was asleep in the 40mm magazine, and was unaware of the activities requiring his attention. In the water was the floatation dummy, “Oscar”. Someone on the bridge mused if Oscar could be hit with a .45 cal pistol from the bridge wing. The Captain said that he could, and bets were made. It was decided that the Roving Patrol’s pistol was the fastest gun to get a hold of, and that is why I was summoned to the bridge.
Obviously the XO did not know what he was doing, but the Junior Officer of the Deck did, and stated, “He won’t come, or worse, he will come.” As a lowly ensign, coupled with being short and fat, he was ignored. Whether he thought I would come complacently in violation of the protocols or with 50 armed men, he didn’t get to mention. But he did move smartly to a corner of the bridge where he wouldn’t be trampled from any of the entrance points to the bridge.
While my fertile imagination came up with a fantasy scenario, the XO had come up with the reason for my nonappearance and picked up the microphone to the intercom and issued the order, “Secure for security alert!”
By now, you probably get the pattern. An order to secure over the intercom is an order to launch a security alert, particularly if this is issued by someone who knows the security protocols. This only reinforced the fantasy in my mind and I started organizing to assault the bridge, when, down from the bridge came the Master at Arms, who had been sent by the XO to the armory to get a gun.
The Master at Arms looked at all of us and said, “What are you all doing here?”
Me, “We are at security alert.”
Master at Arms, “The XO said to secure.”
Master at Arms, now looking at the locked door of the armory, “Get me a .45.”
Me, “If we could get into there, we would be gone by now.”
Master at Arms, to me, “Give me your gun!”
At this time I should point some of the unsaid conflicts going on here. The Master at Arms is the police chief of a ship. He is in charge of maintaining order, detecting illegal activity and enforcing punishments. The position alone garners a low level of hatred among the ranks. This particular Master at Arms also had personal foibles, which I won’t go into, that made him more unlikable than most. Also, as a chief petty officer, he outranked me by two grades, and I was normally subject to his lawful orders. As the story so far makes clear, this was not a normal situation. At that time there were only six men on the ship who could direct me. He was not one of those six, but, because of his normal authority, he was not used to anyone in the ranks defying him.
The Master at Arms got up on the balls of his feet, his hands making fists, and I recalled that he was also Golden Gloves.
I knew what was going to happen. I was going to go down, very hard. A room full of men all took in a breath, and in that eternal second before impact, I read the common thought shared among them all, “We are going to get to beat up the Chief Master at Arms, and we’ll get away with it!”
He also read that thought, swallowed down his pride, relaxed, and departed. For your information, during a security alert, no one but the security team is allowed to move about the ship. Therefore, allowing him to leave was a violation but no one saw fit to enforce this.
I took another minute to recover from this encounter, during which, we were becoming aware that this was just a big mistake, but were still order bound to respond. Two squads were sent to the priority one areas of the ship, and a delegation was about to be sent to the bridge, when the Duty Weapons Officer was sent to the armory and we were properly secured from security alert.
Since I was still on watch, I meandered onto the bridge, wondering what could possibly have caused such a problem.
Arriving, I signed the rover log as required, observed more brass on the starboard bridge wing than I was comfortable dealing with, and struck up a conversation with the Junior Officer of the Deck. He gave me the update about the desire to plug poor “Oscar” from the bridge wing. At this point, the XO motioned me to the bridge wing. The Captain looked at me and gave me the order, “Give me your gun!”
Unfortunately, there was another one of those preexisting orders to filter through that conflicted with this. I can clearly surrender my gun ONLY to the next watch, any of the 4 security officers or the XO. In the example given, I do not even surrender it to an admiral. However the Captain was a hole in this order set. I was just coming to the conclusion, that it is his ship, he gets what he wants, when he reissued the order, “I am your Captain, give me your gun!” I shrugged, handed him the gun and ammo, and backed away.
Footnote: You can hit a dummy floating in the water from an elevated position of about 60 feet, and an angle of about 45 degrees with a .45 caliber pistol.
Epilog: An entry in the ship’s newspaper, one week later: “Well done to the Guard Force which performed exceptionally well in the previous week’s drill. Especially noted is Petty Officer Gardocki, in the performance of his duties under unusual circumstances.”
The notice hidden on the back page, bottom right.
The editor of the newspaper was the XO.