Once upon a time there was a young Machinist Mate serving on a ballistic missile submarine who inherited the job of Repair Parts Petty Officer (RPPO). I am pretty sure he did not know what he had been volunteered for but as in other collateral duties, there really weren’t a lot of choices. The guy who had the job previously had transferred during the off crew period so there wasn’t a lot of training. Fortunately, the Supply Chief was a pretty good guy and had a lot of patience.
The Navy supply system back then was pretty primitive. All parts were transferring into the new National Stock Number that would allow the management of the hundreds of millions of parts required to keep a fleet and its air wing working. Just on one submarine, there had to be some astronomical numbers of parts since stealth is best protected when you don’t have to run back into port every other day when something breaks.
Let me assure you that by the time I got to the George Washington, there was never any shortage of things that broke. I found that out on my second patrol as a brand new RPPO. Here is how it works: the equipment breaks, the mechanics tear it apart and if you are very very lucky, you get a list of parts you need. Then you fill out the duplicated request form 1250, get it signed by your Division Officer and turn it in to the supply department so that they can find out if it actually exists on board. If it was really expensive, you also had to get the Engineer’s signature.
In most cases, its an o-ring (9Z-5330-00-1972) which is located in a storage bin in the supply shack and in the correct quantity you need. If, on the other hand, you are a brand new RPPO, the actual O-ring you need has not been used in 11 years and is in a storage bin someplace in the Missile Compartment lower level behind another bin that has 300 pound valves in it. Plus, the part is needed at 3 AM when the Supply Chief and your Division Officer are both in bed after a long day of drilling. The Chief has just told you that this is a HOT JOB (a typical term for something that will overcome all other priorities until completed and replaced by another HOT JOB).
In my career, I had many Division Officers and later used some of them as examples of what to do when I became one. But I found early on that some men who achieve the rank of United States Navy Officer fall into the category of “the best there ever was”. If you are Navy, you know the kind. First in their Class, athletic, Lady’s Man, Captain’s favorite and on and on. They exist in all services and in the civilian world. I think there was a much higher proportion in submarines and air wings just by the nature of the jobs. You need people who are smart, problem solvers, quick on their feet and basically some of the best of the best. The hallmark of such an officer is that they are not hesitant to announce their wonderfulness both subtly and very openly for all to see and hear. Put another way, they are always legends in their own minds.
(Disclaimer: in retrospect, I had many more of the kind of Officer I wanted to be than this kind… if your feelings are hurt by thinking you are lumped into the “I am amazing, aren’t I?” category, that’s on you shipmate)
My Div O was one of those guys. When I think back on it now, he could have played the leading man in one of those World War 2 submarine movies. He wasn’t really a bad guy, but he was pretty cocky. Even on the Conn, he pushed the edge quite a few times and always seemed to get away with it. The only thing he really didn’t like was being woken up for trivial stuff. Like signing the 1250 forms that were required for that Supply Chief to give the young sailor the needed parts.
The one machine that was the worst for parts was the old Oxygen Generator (previously talked about here https://theleansubmariner.com/2011/07/22/boom/ )
The Bomb had more o-rings and seals in it than any other piece of equipment I have ever known. Every time it had a major leak inside the cabinet holding the cells, you literally had to replace all of them as you cleaned and rebuilt the generator. Any stray amount of dried out caustic could cause a ground which could lead to a short and potentially a fire. Since 3000 PSI of hydrogen and Oxygen were flowing inside the piping, fire was not the best thing that could happen.
The bomb had two major leaks that patrol. Fishman (the senior Petty Officer at the time) was charged with rebuilding it. The young RPPO would stay up with him for the length of time it took to tear down, figure out what was needed, write out the 1250’s and make the rounds to get signatures and parts. The first time, things went fairly well except the growing annoyance form the Division Officer on being awoken so many times as more and more parts were needed. Towards the end, he just stuck his hand out of his curtained bunk, grabbed the chit and scribbled his name. By the second time, he came up with a unique solution. He instructed the young Petty Officer to sign for him and give him a final accounting when the work was done (and he didn’t have to be awoken any more).
What made the process even leaner was when the Supply Chief felt that the RPPO had done this enough that he could just give him his keys for the night and go find the storage lockers themselves. In the Chief’s defense, he had done this with other RPPO’s in the past and never had an issue. But that was before Fishman needed a particular valve that cost over $2500.00. The work was almost done and we had been floating off of the O2 Banks for a few days so the RPPO used his new procedure to get the parts and get the job done.
It wasn’t until the night before coming into port when the Supply Officer was going through the paperwork that he noticed this high value item and noticed no signature from the Engineer. Over dinner that evening, he asked if the Engineer had forgotten to sign the chit. The Engineer had no idea that he was on the hook for this extra few thousand dollars and called for the Division Officer to come down. When he arrived, he of course knew nothing about the expensive purchase and would look into it right away. Conveniently he forgot about the arrangement he had made and asked the Chief to start and investigation and relieve the young RPPO of all of his duties until further notice.
You can only imagine how crushed the young RPPO was as he realized he was being charged with forgery. His hopes of getting promotion were gone but more than that, his fear of being sent to the brig were heart breaking. After spending so many hours without sleep and completely fixing all of the broken equipment before coming back into port his reward was to be accused of doing something that violated the UCMJ. SO he did the one thing that made sense and put in a chit for a request mast with the Captain.
For the next two days there was no word of anything. All talk of punishment was on hold since so many people were now involved. To his credit, the Supply Chief owned up to his actions. That gave the young man a great deal of respect for him which stayed with him throughout his career. The boat pulled in and the in port activity in preparation for the crew change took over all of the attention. Finally after three days, the Captain was coming down the brow after midnight and the young Petty Officer was on topside watch waiting for his relief (who was late again). Mustering up all of his courage, he said “Captain, when will I get my request mass?” The Captain didn’t seem mad to be asked, he just looked kind of sad. “Come down to the wardroom when you get off watch and we can talk”.
After getting relieved, he went to the wardroom. The Captain was sitting there and none of the stewards were around. He offered the young man some coffee and directed him to sit down. Then he began speaking.
Captain:“This was a pretty rough patrol wasn’t it?
RPPO: “Yes sir”
Captain: “I understand you were a large part of repairing the machines that broke. That must have taken a lot of time and effort.”
RPPO: “I was just trying to do what I was supposed to Captain”.
Captain: “You know Lieutenant ####### is a fine young officer with a great career ahead of him. He is leaving the boat for an important job with Squadron after this patrol and everyone seems to think he will go a long way in the Navy. I think for that reason it might be good if we were all able to just put this little incident away and move on from here. After all, a questionable mark on his record could affect his future.”
Did he just say that? After all the pain and heartbreak, that was it? What about justice?
Captain: “I think if we all just chalk this up to experience we can all just say we learned something and that’s the end of it.”
So that was it. At 0130 in the Wardroom, a gentleman’s agreement was reached and the Lieutenant walked off the ship the next day never to be seen or heard from again by the young man. He did leave one last reminder though. A few days later the chief sat down with the young man and gave him his Evaluation that had been signed by the departing officer. The marks were fairly average and expected. But the most burning words were lined out and initialed by that officer.
“Petty Officer MacPherson has assumed the job of Repair Parts Petty Officer. He has performed well as RPPO with no supervision.”
36 Years later and I still keep a copy of that eval. As I grew older I would look at it from time to time as a reminder of what kind of Chief and an Officer I wanted to be. The real lesson is to deal in an honest way all the time and you won’t have to worry about what people think about you or who they say you are. Take responsibilities for your actions and your people will know that you truly are the “best there ever was” … even when you know you are just another person trying to be the man you want God to think you are.
By the way, I also kept the copy of the letter from the CO dated a few months later to MM3(SS) MacPherson
Yes I know it was a form letter… but it did give me the motivation to keep moving forward.
By the way, what have you done for your troops today?