March 31 – A tale of two sailors
On March 31, 1975, A.E. Walther, LCDR, USN, Executive Officer of the USS George Washington and Robert W. MacPherson, MM3 (SS), USN signed the NAVPERS 1616/5 Report of Enlisted Performance Evaluation sheet that would become part of the official permanent record for Petty Officer MacPherson.
“Assigned to the Auxiliary Division aboard a 598 Class Polaris Submarine. Operates, maintains and repairs R-12 air conditioning and refrigeration systems, air systems, hydraulic systems, and atmosphere control equipment. Stands below decks watch inport and Auxiliaryman of the Watch and Scrubber Room Watch Underway.
Block 7. Evaluation of performance:
“During this reporting period, Petty Officer MacPherson has been advanced from MMFN to MM3, has completed Below Decks Watch Qualification, and has assumed the job of Repair Parts Petty Officer. He has performed well as Repair Parts Petty Officer with no supervision. He works well within the division, and is quick to follow orders and pursue assigned tasks. He has good mechanical ability and uses his required knowledge to complete all jobs with only limited supervision. He has an excellent command of the English Language, both oral and written.”
The overall marks were 3.6 on a 4.0 scale.
45 years later and the lined out part still stings a bit.
Now for the rest of the story.
On the patrol that was just completing as this evaluation was being written, I had been the Repair Parts Petty Officer for my division. This job was a kind of a thankless job and often required me to work well past my normal hours of watch and work rotation. The George Washington was already showing her age in 1975 and many of our auxiliary systems were in rough shape. Hydraulic leaks and air leaks were common and the parts needed to repair most of the equipment had been in storage for over ten years.
But the most challenging piece of equipment was the Electrolytic Oxygen Generator. This device was pretty important since it provided the makeup oxygen needed for our crew of 120 plus people. But the machine was very finicky and often went down for minor repairs. As the repair parts petty officer, it was my job to look up the part numbers, write the requisition chits (called 1250’s) and route them through the appropriate chain of command for signatures. Then I would go with the storekeeper and retrieve the parts from one of the thousands of locations scattered throughout the boat.
On the run, the Generator failed twice. The second time was a catastrophic failure. In fact, at one point, the entire ship went to General Quarters and a fire party was standing by waiting for an explosion that never came. Dewey Watson and I stopped the machine just as it was about to go over the edge.
The repair would take days. Caustic spray had entered the entire cell area and the assumption was that every single seal on the inside was bad and needed to be replaced. This would require hundreds of supply parts with a nearly equal number of supply forms to fill out. The patrol had been a hard one for the entire crew. Other events had tired out both officers and men, so the long hours to fix this needed piece of equipment took their toll.
At one point, I had been to the Division Officer’s stateroom more times than I wanted to admit and he rolled over and told me to just initial the chits for him. He went back to sleep and I went on my way. Over the next few days, I did exactly that. Thousands upon thousands of dollars of parts were signed for using his initials that I dutifully filled in.
I don’t remember the sequence of events at the end of patrol but I do remember getting called to the wardroom. The captain had a stack of the chits in front of him. He asked me if those were my initials in the authorization block. My Division officer sat there with his eyes looking down at the table. Of course I said yes and at that point the Captain asked the Executive Officer to write me up for forging documents.
I was stunned. I had been an average sailor but had worked my heart out to overcome a rough start. I looked at my Lieutenant and waited for him to say something but all he said was “Sorry about all this Captain.”
I went down to the pump room and thought about all that had happened. It was a miserable couple of days. I had never even been written up before and now I was going to go to Captain’s Mast. It just didn’t seem fair.
The boat pulled in to Guam and I was waiting for the hammer to drop. I remembered the rule about requesting Captain’s Mast and put in the paperwork.
The way it ended was a surprise.
I was finishing up the Below Decks watch after midnight and the Captain came back from the beach. He invited me into the wardroom for a cup of coffee. We sat across from each other and he started by saying “Lieutenant M*****is a promising young officer and has a great future in the Navy. His father is an Admiral and knows that his son has a strong place in the Navy’s future. Now, I’ve looked into this and it appears that maybe you were actually doing what you were told. But rather than this all becoming public, what can we do to make this go away?”
To say I was shocked was an understatement. Did he just say what I thought he said?
I asked him to have my record cleared and I would withdraw my request for Mast. The LT. was transferring anyway so I would not see him anymore on any future patrols. Life could just go on as it was before the incident.
But the LT. got his revenge on the way out. He crossed out the words in that evaluation and made sure the marks were low enough to hurt my future. I just signed the papers and said to myself it didn’t matter. I was going to get out of the Navy anyway.
Fast Forward to the year 1980.
I left active duty for a while but found myself back in uniform. I came back as a very “mature” third class in 1979 on board a new construction Fast Attack Submarine (USS San Francisco).
The Block 7 Evaluation read something completely different:
“Petty Officer MacPherson is older, noticeably more mature than his peers and is enthusiastic about returning to the submarine force. Since reporting to this command he has distinguished himself as a top performer in his division without regard to seniority. He readily volunteers to accept increased responsibilities and is frequently tasked to perform jobs typically assigned to a first or second class petty officer. Despite a workload which frequently requires him to remain past normal hours, it is clear from his enthusiasm and positive attitude that he enjoys the challenge of New Construction duty.”
The performance marks were all 4.0 out of 4.0
I went on to become a Command Career Counselor, Qualified Chief of the Watch as a Second Class, Master Training Specialist, Chief Petty Officer and later Chief Warrant Officer.
I was the same person in some ways but different in others.
My heart was always in doing the right thing. But in the second chance I got, I finally realized that it was my attitude that had held me back the first time. I was waiting for the Navy to change to fit my needs. The Navy never changes. I had to find the way to change myself.
I looked for that Lieutenant years later just to see what became of him. Despite his family connections and early promise, he disappeared from the Navy at some point. He never made Captain or Admiral. In some ways, he did me the greatest favor anyone ever could have. In later years when I became a Chief and then Officer, I always made sure that I stood with my people in rough times. Clear and consistent directions matched by clear and consistent follow through.
That is what leadership should be. The fact that an average sailor had the potential to become something more than average was never lost on me the entire time I was blessed to be a leader.