How Two Negatives Made a Negative

He was quick spoken, quick to criticize, harsh and, as compared to leadership defined as “know you stuff, take care of your people,” his was the antithesis, “since I don’t know my stuff, I have to exploit my people.”

Thus, when the Assistant Chief of Staff responsible for maintenance of the Atlantic Fleet’s amphibious ships, departed for a boondoggle in the Mediterranean, supposedly to observe how their material conditions impacted on their service with the Sixth Fleet, the entire office breathed a sigh of relief. I then became the Acting Assistant Chief of Staff responsible for the maintenance of nineteen diesel-propelled vessels in addition to the twenty-seven steamships that were my normal concern. In that capacity, I observed some interesting things about the behavior of people.

Most of the Amphibious Force ships in 1958 were leftovers from World War II. Regarding funding for just the steamships, for example, there was an average of only $520,000 per ship available for the cost of a two-month overhaul after two-years of operations. My job included the apportionment of those insufficient funds so as to obtain the best-achievable degree of readiness for all. The guys who manned the ships weren’t sympathetic about my problem and it seemed to me that they were complaining continuously.

Then within just a few days of me being in charge of the overall office, on 15 July 1958 U.S. Marines attached to the Sixth Fleet landed in Lebanon in order to thwart overthrow of a pro-Western regime. The war plan required a battalion of reinforcements to depart for the Mediterranean within four days. Suddenly the gripes ceased; everyone afloat was determined to get on with the operation. The speed and degree of their attitude transformation was amazing.

Then something else, this time negatively profound, came to my attention. The lieutenant who was concerned with maintenance of the diesel-propelled landing ships, after a full day of fretting since the war plan went into effect, decided that he had better inform me that about ten days before, when backing off of a beach during a landing exercise, the only new landing ship in the Force, USS SUFFOLK COUNTY (LST-1173), had run over its own anchor and punctured an innerbottom void. In addition, he advised that within the flooded void was a manhole cover that provided access to a main-engine sump tank. Then came the real shocker. At that moment, the damaged LST was in Moorehead City, North Carolina and was already loaded with Marines, vehicles, ammunition, and gasoline!

I then immediately phoned the Navy’s Industrial Manager’s Office, the intermediary that served to contract for ship repair work with private shipyards, about the prospects for immediate dry docking and repair. While waiting for a response I learned more startling news.

The Amphibious Force steamships were organized into squadrons and the diesel-propelled LSTs, as a group, were designated Landing Ship Flotilla 2. In radio message traffic its commander, a captain whom I had never met, was addressed as ComLanFlot2. Because of the Captain’s self-serving behavior, a wit in our maintenance office came up with the nickname FlipFlop2.

I next learned that FlipFlop2, Negative No. 1 in this tale, knew about the damage in SUFFOLK COUNTY and had discussed it with the senior material officer, Negative No. 2, whose preoccupation was soliciting commendations. Their objective was to insure that SUFFOLK COUNTY, the Flotilla’s flagship, would be available to participate during the scheduled week when operational control would be given to the Flotilla Commander. I was advised by the lieutenant that FlipFlop2 had planned refueling-at-sea exercises, landings and other demonstrations and had invited a bevy of influential civilians, including at least one Congressman. Such was the priority assigned to naval readiness by Negatives 1 and 2; it was their bum luck that the sudden need to reinforce the Marines in Lebanon exposed their deceit.

Regarding my inquiry, within thirty minutes the Industrial Manager’s office advised that Newport New Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, in an around-the-clock operation, would move a commercial ship out and would have the dock prepared before loaded SUFFOLK COUNTY could arrive in Hampton Roads. Thus with a proposed solution in hand I immediately rushed to inform the Chief of Staff.

When I explained to the Flag Secretary the nature of the problem he said that I would be the next one to see the Chief of Staff even though there was a few senior officers waiting. After a few minutes, per the Flag Secretary’s signal, I entered the Chief of Staff’s office and had to pass in front of a Captain who was hunched forward on a sofa and rapidly writing in a notebook. The Chief of Staff told me to commence my report and as I started to describe the SUFFOLK COUNTY saga the Captain on the sofa jumped up and shouted, “It’s only a little crack!”

I knew then I had at last met FlipFlop2. I continued, “It’s a bottom void intended as reserve buoyancy and it’s flooded. What’s more, it contains a manhole cover for entry to the main-engine sump. Water facilitates the transmission of high-impact shock, such as from a near miss. Thus, the bolts could elongate and sea water would foul the engine’s lube oil system.”

The Chief of Staff waved FlipFlop2 to remain in the office and told me to go ahead with the docking. I can only imagine what was said after I departed.

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Afterwards, I arranged for the Staff photographer to go to the dry dock and obtain photographs of the bottom damage. I instructed him to shoot pictures as soon as the water level dropped beneath the bottom plating. “I want pictures of the water coming out of that ship,” I said.

The photos were more dramatic than what I had expected. They disclosed that when SUFFOLK COUNTY backed off of the beach an anchor fluke creased the relatively thin bottom plating until it encountered a transverse frame where it punched a six-inch wide hole and then passed across and repeated the process until encountering another frame where it punched another hole and so on. The water was pouring out in torrents and the damage extended over the length of two voids, i.e., two were flooded, one more than the one reported!

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Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo


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