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Stalin and the Confederacy

The matter of Confederate icons, statues, and base names has consumed a great deal of press recently. Two separate arguments have prevailed: one that says that changing the Confederate landscape in the United States would somehow “change history,” while the other indicates history can’t be changed by removal of icons, but the glorification of the Confederate cause must end. For me, the matter was brought into brutal clarity by a woman in the Republic of Georgia in 2015.
On a business trip to the Republic of Georgia, I was invited by a local employee to visit Joseph Stalin’s birthplace. I’m not sure I knew at the time, in 2015, that Stalin was from Georgia. But I’m fascinated by history, so I went.

The house of Stalin’s birth had been Sovietized, with heavy industrial surroundings and a museum. I paid a few extra dollars for a tour. My guide was a sexagenarian English-speaking Georgian woman who had a great depth of understanding of every major event in Stalin’s life. I quickly realized that she revered the dictator who had ordered the death of nearly a million Soviet citizens.


When I asked her about this, she had a well-rehearsed response: “I have been to America and have seen all the statues of your Confederate leaders. If I asked you why Americans have so much devotion to men who fought a war for the right to kill millions of American slaves, you would say you are honoring the warriors and not the slavery they fought for, right? I give you the same answer for Stalin.”

For me, this came completely out of left field. I answered that my family had immigrated from Italy to the American North in the 1920s and had no ties to the Confederacy. But that missed the point.

Recent events have caused me to reflect on this conversation and reconsider my own blasé attitude toward the Confederacy and its icons, subjects that came up from time to time during my nearly 30 years in uniform.

When I walked the fields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas and Chancellorsville with military lecturers who would occasionally wander from tactical analysis to defense of the “Lost Cause,” I said nothing.

When my parents moved the family to southern Virginia and I was confronted by the locals with a vigorous defense of the “noble sons of Virginia,” I usually didn’t respond.

When, during my Navy career, I was confronted by the Confederate battle flag hanging in spaces aboard ship or tacked to the bumpers of one of my sailors’ cars, I don’t believe I ever said a thing.

When a uniformed colleague at the Pentagon argued energetically that it was right for 10 Army bases to be named after Confederates when not one was named for Ulysses S. Grant, I was merely bemused.

No one in 2020 defends slavery. Instead they offer rationalizations in the name of “preserving history.” Changing base names and lawfully taking down monuments doesn’t change history. It merely stops glorifying those who committed historic wrongs.

The Georgian woman’s narrative wasn’t quite right. Unlike Stalin, Confederate generals didn’t order the execution of millions. But their rebellion, waged to preserve slavery, ended up killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. And it gave ammunition to an apologist for Soviet communism decades after the Cold War.
Articles Leadership

13 Lessons from the Crozier Controversy

This was the fourth in a series of 4 articles written on the Crozier affair. This one was published in Defense One on July 9, 2020.


Much has been written these past few months about Capt. Brett Crozier’s response to the coronavirus outbreak on board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The general theme of most of the articles is that the Navy should have protected Crozier because he “loved” his crew and had their best interests at heart. As I have written previously, the question as to whether he was actually effective had been lost in nearly all of the analysis. As the Navy’s investigation has concluded, it is clear from the report that Crozier’s performance was deficient.
Here are a few lessons for military leaders from the Crozier incident, written with full awareness of the Navy’s investigation report. They don’t merely derive from the 47-page report, but include learnings that emerge from the entire public spectacle:


1. An 80-percent solution delivered on time is almost always better than a 100-percent solution delivered too late. Captain Crozier was hyper-focused on a solution he believed would meet 100 percent of the CDC guidelines for protecting his crew. Unfortunately, that solution—moving his crew into hotels in Guam’s tourist district—was not within the Navy’s ability to implement without significant local government and business help, an effort which would take days to weeks. There were other, more immediate, solutions within Crozier’s authority to direct, but he elected not to pursue them because they were not “ideal” solutions. In so doing, the report concludes, Crozier put the crew’s comfort ahead of their safety and actually delayed isolation efforts. Ask for outside help if you think you need it, but meanwhile focus on measures that are within your control.

2. Just because you aren’t an expert doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate the quality of data going into your decision. At the time Crozier was making his decisions, the probability data on transmissibility of the disease was fairly good, hence his team could fairly accurately predict the rate of infections. But what was not known at that time was how severe those infections would be. Yet Crozier’s medical staff communicated as if they had high confidence in predicted fatality outcomes. Had the data on which they made these predictions been reliable, the frenetic nature of their actions, which included a threat to leak information to the press, might be easier to understand. But the data was based on a cruise ship event where the population demographic was very different that the Roosevelt’s. In this case it would have been tempting to think, “Well, I’m not a medical officer, so I will simply hit the ‘I believe button’ on what the doctors are telling me.” But leaders are required to evaluate data outside their area of expertise all the time. You may not be a mechanical engineer, but you will be required to decide on whether the data suggests you should interrupt operations to repair that pump now. You may not be an intelligence officer, but you will be required to decide whether targeting data is sufficient to support the strike. And just because you are not a physician does not absolve you of the responsibility to determine whether certain medical data justifies your decision. You will be accountable for your decision, not “the experts.”

3. Be careful when suggesting a course of action that could shift risk from a military population to a civilian one.
Crozier’s preferred course of action — moving his crew into town — could have introduced a large number of COVID infections into a community of Guam civilians who had little or no health insurance. Several of Guam’s civilian leaders, understandably alarmed by this proposal, pushed back energetically. Crozier did not give this matter the attention it deserved, instead dismissing it as a “political” problem. Hence he failed to pursue a course of action that considered holistic risk, factoring in risk to all U.S. citizens in Guam, and instead focused on just the risk to his crew.

4. Military members should be more, not less, disciplined than average Americans. I made the point in my earlier articles that the now-famous farewell celebration for Crozier very likely increased the rate of infection among his crew. The Navy’s study seems to back that assertion up, reporting that somewhere around 2,000 crew members assembled in close proximity for his sendoff. It also indicates that the Seventh Fleet staff knew that this event had “just made their job harder,” and that perhaps hundreds of the COVID-19 cases that would emerge over the ensuing couple of weeks were caused by this love-fest. With most of America following guidance during this period of time by isolating at home, this lack of discipline among the crew was inexcusable.

5. How your crew behaves, even when you are not present, reflects on your leadership. Apologists have said that Crozier could not have been held responsible for the crew’s behavior during his farewell party because he was no longer in command. That’s a cop-out. If Crozier had been effective at teaching his crew the urgency of social distancing, if his leadership lessons had “stuck” for even one day beyond his captaincy, this celebration would never have happened and perhaps hundreds of transmissions would have been avoided.

6. Properly inform and properly engage your chain of command. The report indicates that Crozier limited certain information to aviation community leaders rather than fully involving his operational chain of command, failed to use proper methods to communicate the severity of his concern to operational leaders, was inconsistent in communicating the degree of his concern depending on who he was speaking to, and used unclassified email to make operational recommendations. Apologists have suggested Crozier did this as a matter of expedience, but the way he approached the problem did nothing to accelerate a response. In fact, it had quite the opposite effect.

7. Don’t presume you know more than you do about what’s going on outside your command. When a leader asks for help, supporting commands will spin up, but they have to judge how much information is enough to update without overwhelming the supported command. Sometimes they will judge wrong and provide less information than you would like. It is fine for the supported command to validate progress, but you should not assume you know more than you actually do. Crozier’s email with the attached letter created an incorrect picture of progress made in establishing the conditions to move his crew into town. When it went public and staffs had to deal with the fallout, it made things worse by consuming their effort and delaying work in progress. Before you ever represent that support is insufficient, make sure you are absolutely certain you have a good picture of what is going on outside your command.

8. Everything will leak.
The Crozier investigation does not conclude who leaked his letter. But it indicates that the ship’s medical staff threatened to leak a letter. In the modern world, assume everything on the unclassified network, and too much of what exists on the classified network, will be released far beyond what was intended. Whatever you write, assume it will get out, and play out scenarios of what will happen when it does, before you hit “send.”

9. Many of your crewmembers will use social media as their primary source of information. Despite the existence of Snopes and other fact-checking services, much of what flows around social media sites is false or misleading. The more breathless a report is, the more it will propagate. Imagine if those sites were your primary, or even your only, sources of information. Unfortunately, that state is true for too many in our country, including many military members. In the modern age, the issue will not be whether what the crew “knows” is wrong, the question will only be the degree to which it is wrong. In a world where information is constantly modulated, commands must do what they can to implement “truth campaigns” that are honest and effective.

10. Social media “campaigns” will create a new dynamic that can quickly spread off the ship. Regardless of whether it is wise for commands to communicate to crew and their families via social media, that is what is happening today. The problem begins when incorrect information (or disinformation) is injected into those social exchanges, as it almost always is. In the case of the Theodore Roosevelt, Crozier created an inaccurate picture of the degree of progress on getting his crew off the ship, which spun out of control into a social media campaign driven by media outlets. At that point, the truth no longer mattered, and Navy lost control of the narrative.

11. Another danger: decision by “Twitter mob.” The tool of “creating a false narrative then get the public to amplify that false narrative” has existed for some time, but the military was thought to be somewhat insulated from it. No longer. Once the report of Theodore Roosevelt’s status began spinning out of control, the “Twitter mob” phenomenon began, where a large number of media outlets, “influencers,” and members of the general public became outraged by the inaccurate status and demanded action. There was even concern that this social media pressure might influence senior defense leaders, which would be worrisome in any situation, more so in an operational event. There is extreme risk that ill-informed, or well-informed but malign, social media forces will intentionally or inadvertently drive a decision in the wrong direction. This is a matter that must be understood and dealt with at all levels of command, and the higher up you get, the more critical the response likely will be.

12. Supporting staff is just that: supporting staff. You are the leader, and the fact you may have received bad advice from supporting staff will not protect you, nor should it. Challenge assumptions. Cross-check supposed “facts.” Make sure the information you are basing your decision on is correct. It is your responsibility.

13. Panicked activity never helps. In a crisis, there will always be a temptation to “do something.” That “something” must derive from reason and logic. Yet, in the case of the Theodore Roosevelt, it appears that reasoned analysis had been overcome by frenetic activity directed at getting “the machine” to move faster on a very challenging course of action. Again, in the cold light of day, there were actions that could have been taken to reduce risk of exposure for the crew that would have been additive to, not in lieu of, Crozier’s preferred solution. The more serious an event is, the more important it is to slow down and think.

It is remarkable that so many people commenting on the Crozier affair got so much so wrong. The signs were there from the beginning, for those who felt inclined to look for them.
Articles Leadership

Reinstatement: What’s Right Got to Do With It?

This was the third in a series of 3 articles written on the Crozier affair. The first piece was written in reaction to the significant lack of balance in national coverage of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID issue, which seemed to ignore national strategic implications of a COVID infection that started in China and then took out of action the only American aircraft carrier deployed in the China theater of operations. It was published in Wall Street Journal on April 6, 2020. The second piece was written about the great media reaction to the perception that Crozier’s actions were appropriate because they were driven by “love” for and by his crew, and was published in US Naval Institute Proceedings a week later. This third piece was written to explore the larger issues of weighing what was best for the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt against the spread of infection to the older, less healthy, and largely low income population of American citizens residing in Guam.


Should Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reinstate Captain Crozier? This is a complex issue. Let’s consider it based on the facts as we know them now.
Let’s not debate how the infection got to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Some say the vector was from their visit to Vietnam, but the timeline may support the possibility that one of the crewmembers returning to the ship from San Diego brought the infection with him. We may never know, and it really doesn’t affect the issues outlined below.
As I argued in both the Wall Street Journal and in Proceedings, Capt. Crozier was right to argue strenuously about the risk to his crew, and only his crew. If the well-being of the crew of the Roosevelt were the only issue at hand, it would have been easy for the Navy to deal with it.
But once the infection was aboard, here is the situation Navy leaders faced:
  • While the leaders of other sovereign nations could have refused entry to the Roosevelt, the governor of Guam could not. Hence, Guam was the Navy’s only real choice for where to send the ship.
  • Guam is a very small territory, with a population of about 160K, about the size of Fort Collins, Colorado. There is one small naval “hospital” on the island (almost too small to be called a hospital), as well as one civilian hospital. If an outbreak occurred among the civilian population, it could be devastating, so the territorial leaders had to be convinced the outbreak would be contained.
  • Capt. Crozier’s written statements indicated he wanted his crew off the ship fast, but there was no place on base to house 4500 crewmembers. The Army has housed troops in isolation in field conditions (tents), but this was either not possible or not contemplated for the Roosevelt crew. Hence, Capt. Crozier insisted the best course of action was to put the crew in tourist district hotels.
  • But Guam’s hotels had already been closed because of the virus, and hotel employees had been laid off. So, the Navy had to work with hotel owners, convince them to open their hotels to potential infection, develop a plan to prevent interface between sailors and hotel workers, and wait for the hotels to rehire employees who would be willing to risk potential infection. Further, the Navy had to figure out a way to feed the crew 14000 meals a day with the restaurants in town also shut down because of COVID. The Navy had to work with restaurant owners and convince them to rehire their staffs and open back up to serve, again, potentially infected sailors.
  • The Navy could not mandate these things— they had no power over the local government or local businesses. People in the local community had to be willing to help. Folks had to come out of isolation. Businesses had to be restarted.
  • Capt. Crozier knew about these complexities. He raised it in his March 30th email: “While I understand that there are political concerns with requesting the use of hotels on Guam to truly isolate the remaining 4,500 Sailors 14+ days, the hotels are empty, and I believe it is the only way to quickly combat the problem.”
  • But the potential for civilian casualties among American citizens are not merely “political concerns,” and leaders on Guam were very concerned. On April 2nd, Senator Sabina Flores Perez wrote a letter to Guam’s Governor Lourdes Leon Guererro that said, in part, “I am disturbed by the reckless double-standard of potentially placing potentially exposed military personnel in local hotels…. If sailors are placed in our hotels, we will be exposing lower-wage employees to greater risk, many of whom are older and have limited or no health benefits for themselves and their families.” (emphasis added)
Again, Capt. Crozier was right to fight for his crew. But senior leaders, both in the Navy and in the government of Guam, had to weigh the risk to his young and healthy crew against the risk to the mostly lower income, older people of Guam, to make sure things were done deliberately and safely.
When Capt. Crozier didn’t think things were moving fast enough, he wrote (and someone leaked) his now infamous letter.
From the start, it appears that Capt. Crozier was anxious about the only available data at his disposal for the spread of COVID aboard ship— that from a cruise ship. Extrapolating from that, it’s reported that he thought there was a possibility that 50 of his sailors could die. But he should have understood the two models were not comparable. The cruise ship passengers’ average age was late 60s, many with significant health problems. His crew’s average age was about 21, all of them relatively healthy and in “deployable” status. It’s unspeakably tragic that a sailor from the Roosevelt died— but that was one death in about 950 infections. What was the shipboard death rate for a population aged 65–90? About 1%. It’s prudent to plan for the worst case scenario, and there was a lot that wasn’t known about the disease progression at the time, but if his medical staff led him to believe that the mortality rates for his crew would be anywhere near 50, they may have inadvertently set him up.
People have said that Capt. Crozier would not have written his letter without first consulting his leadership. Evidence suggests that he did have discussions with his leadership— he just didn’t like the answer he was getting.
If Capt. Crozier was putting the interests of his crew over the interests of other American citizens, even to the point of seeking national media attention, in such a way that would turn the tide to his favor– was that the right call? Is that the standard we are going to use to measure the performance of other Navy commanding officers going forward? To use all methods available to them, including the press, if they are frustrated with their chain of command’s responsiveness?
And it bears repeating— the rock concert-like, social-distancing-be-damned celebration by the Roosevelt crew as Crozier left the ship make it clear that Crozier did a very poor job teaching his crew how to avoid this infection. I wonder how many of the 950 infections in his crew were caused by that goodbye celebration. Your Aunt Emma and her friends have been very disciplined in their enforcement of the routines that will get us out of this crisis. A Navy ship’s crew should be more disciplined, not less, than Aunt Emma.
If you believe Capt. Crozier was right to get agitated with leaders in his chain of command who had the broader responsibility of balancing the interests of 160,000 mostly low-income American citizens with the interests of his young, healthy crew, then by all means reinstate.

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Command at Sea: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

This was the second in a series of 3 articles written on the Crozier affair. The first piece was written in reaction to the significant lack of balance in national coverage of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID issue, which seemed to ignore national strategic implications of a COVID infection that started in China and then took out of action the only American aircraft carrier deployed in the China theater of operations. It was published in Wall Street Journal on April 6, 2020. This is the second piece, which was written about the great media reaction to the perception that Crozier’s actions were appropriate because they were driven by “love” for and by his crew, and was published in US Naval Institute Proceedings a week later. The third piece was written to explore the larger issues of weighing what was best for the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt against the spread of infection to the older, less healthy, and largely low income population of American citizens residing in Guam.

While teaching leadership to my sailors, I sometimes used movie clips to make a specific point. One of the best was the superb 1949 movie “Twelve O’clock High,” starring Gregory Peck. The story starts with a character named Colonel Keith Davenport, the group commander of the 918th Bomb Group. The unit is flying daylight bombing runs over Germany and suffering terrible losses. Davenport cares for his command intensely. He agonizes for his men. He works tirelessly. He loves his men, and they love him.
But his love is killing them.
Higher command’s operations officer, Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck’s character), decides it’s time to relieve Davenport, and he is asked to take the job. An aptly named, notorious hard-ass, Savage shows up and immediately focuses on discipline. He reminds his soldiers that they are in the Army. He sets expectations and holds them accountable. Initially, they hate him. They fight him. They resist. But soon, their combat effectiveness improves, and their loss rate declines. Gradually, they realize Savage was right, and they come to respect their new commanding officer.
“Twelve O’clock High” dramatizes a leadership truism: it is possible to be effective while being loved, but being loved does not make one effective. Strangely, the public discourse over the story of Captain Brett Crozier and the USS TheodoreRoosevelt (CVN-71) has been largely about “love.” And although the story is still being written, there is already much to reflect on. 
Further, many of the issues raised by the Theodore Roosevelt incident show that the Navy is undergoing an evolution of ethos. Regardless of whether one believes this is a good thing, contemplation of this evolution is important.
The often-outraged chatter over the Theodore Roosevelt affair has often gone something like this: “Captain Crozier loved and was loved by his crew.” (Some senior officers use the term “deep affection.”) There is nothing wrong with that, and it certainly is not the first time that word has been used in conjunction with a military unit. But it has been surprising to watch the degree to which “love” has been one of the dominant themes—not just by civilians, but by military veterans as well, even to the point of justifying the outcome.
But at what point in our Navy’s history did love begin to matter? Does love or deep affection represent the new normal in expectations for military commanders? 
In light of the viral nature of both the COVID infection itself, and its social media coverage, that social media seems to be not merely reflecting attitudes regarding the event, but also driving behavior of individual sailors, the public in general, and national decisionmakers.
While I had great affection for my crews (as I hope they had for me), I doubt the declaration or demonstration of any emotion twenty years ago would have shielded me or other commanders from fallout from our decisions. The narrative back then, particularly from the retired military community, would have been different, and would have focused on whether a commander’s decision actually worked. The most important metric was mission accomplishment. 
For commanding officers reading this, please do not take the wrong lessons from this incident. Crews want their captain to be competent, consistent, skilled, and professional. No crew likes to be mediocre. If your crew has affection for you because you have upgraded your ship’s performance and made it more effective, you should be proud. But if they love you for any other reason, to include the perception that you are merely their protector, a self-assessment may be necessary. 
Another point for reflection: People have been quick to state that the COVID crisis is something no commander has ever had to deal with before. That is true, but hundreds of battles in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq challenged other leaders with unprecedented situations. Many of these threatened the survival of entire units, just as Captain Crozier felt his entire crew was in danger. Captain Crozier’s letter justified his request of taking the Theodore Roosevelt offline, stating, “We are not at war.” But even in peacetime, military operations can present unprecedented scenarios—sometimes jeopardizing an entire crew, as any submarine commander can tell you. Even in peacetime, ships face threats—a fire in weapons spaces, for example, that require a captain to make life-and-death decisions bearing directly on survival of the crew.  Of course, gain should offset operational risk, and commanding officers should have input, including—in some cases— “veto authority.” But that must always occur within the proper channels, with the proper voices balancing the complete picture. 
Regarding Captain Crozier’s “We are not at war” statement— who would like to make that case to the families of the 13 American servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan so far in 2020, or to those still on patrol, under fire, overseas? Do individual commanding officers now get to decide whether the nation is at war? A generation ago if a commanding officer had unilaterally made such a declaration of peace, the reaction to that statement would have been much different.
Seeing little balance in the public discourse, I wrote an op-ed that was published on 7 April in the Wall Street Journal. I tried not to speculate on information not yet known, to avoid attributing motive or intent, but to work with the facts as they were known in the public domain. I made four observations: 
  • That it was difficult to reconcile Captain Crozier’s stated intent— that he was trying to send an urgent appeal for help— with what he actually did;
  • That representing the operational status of a warship should have been handled within classified channels; 
  • That military course-of-action recommendations should strive to avoid emotional undertones and should be based on analysis and logic, and; 
  • That the actions of the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew during their ad hoc goodbye celebration were an unfortunate breach of discipline that probably increased the number of infections on the ship.
I did not take a side on whether Crozier’s relief was appropriate (although I agonized for him and regretted the way he handled the issue). My analysis required making no assumptions— it was based on observations that have not been challenged. Ten years ago, those observations would have been uncontroversial. 
My concern is that the Crozier affair might be much larger than the carrier itself, that it might be a symptom of a more extensive, new phenomenon— the expansion of a social media-driven, feel-good zeitgeist that might be a negative influence on military command. Both the revelation and content of the letter itself, as well as the crew’s reaction to Crozier’s relief, received enormous national coverage. I made the point, in light of the viral nature of both the COVID infection itself, and its social media coverage, that social media seems to be not merely reflecting attitudes regarding the event, but also driving behavior of individual sailors, the public in general, and national decisionmakers.
Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps. But root cause analysis teaches us that people are always tempted to treat any problem as a one-off— something we are supposed to avoid. We are supposed to analyze an issue for systemic causes and impact. If this event was not a one-off, what does it say about future military decision-making? Does this social-media-driven reaction signal an erosion of military ethos? This is a fair concern and an appropriate subject for discussion
I entered the national discourse to elevate these matters for debate. The reaction was stunning.
While the thousand or so comments on my op-ed over the next 24 hours were mostly positive, the negative comments were split evenly between those written by people with military experience and those without. It was incredible to see the number of all-caps, shouting, pseudo-rebuttals that provided no cogent arguments but carried a “HOW DARE YOU QUESTION A PATRIOT LIKE THIS, YOU POSER! WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT MILITARY SERVICE?” theme. 
Two insights can be gleaned: first, the Theodore Roosevelt event has struck an emotional chord with the public that often fails to incorporate facts; and second, any viewpoint put forward that is perceived to be “fighting” the Navy will be received with much greater applause than one that tries to inform or explain a government action. It used to be that folks just hated Congress and the military was held in high esteem. Those days seem to have passed. And it doesn’t matter what your arguments are. Emotion will prevail.
I had hoped that one fact-based observation would reign over emotion, particularly with veterans—that the carrier’s sailors had demonstrated a lack of discipline in the farewell ceremony video. Many veteran commenters agreed that the display reflected poorly on Captain Crozier, but I was surprised at the number of veterans who justified the captain’s rock star send-off, as well as his shotgunning classified information via email, with emotional arguments such as “love.”
America has been through a lot these past few weeks. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been sickened by the coronavirus, and thousands have died. A record number of workers lost their jobs and filed for unemployment as businesses shut down. Most Americans were trying to do the right thing to defeat the virus. Then the aircraft carrier goodbye video aired on Instagram and everyone seemed to forget about all that. 
Sailors disregarded everything we had been all been taught about stopping the spread of the disease. But why worry? They were just “showing their love for their captain.” With hundreds crammed into a small area around one of the ship’s elevators, would their “love” protect them from infection? Did they not learn what the rest of us did? Or did they just not care? 
Where were the horrified voices condemning the tragedy that these sailors had likely just inflicted upon themselves— a ripple-effect of new infections? Why were none of the pundits who make regular rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows sounding off about this? Where were the voices saying that, in the midst of a crisis, we should expect military professionals to be more disciplined than the average citizen?
Instead, what we heard was an excuse, “THERE IS NO SOCIAL DISTANCING ON A WARSHIP!” The truth, as Proceedings readers well know, is that the Theodore Roosevelt is an aircraft carrier, not a submarine. Her hangar bay is 700 feet long, yet that video revealed hundreds of sailors jammed into a small area around an elevator. Why have so many Navy veterans who should know better been pushing this canard? 
Even the chief petty officers I know are asking, “Where were the Chiefs?” I presume the Chiefs’ Mess was fully involved in transferring crewmembers off the ship, shifting watchbills and other arrangements to minimize berthing and mess-space loading and improve social distancing. But in none of the interactions do we see any evidence of an engaged and effective goat locker. 
Strategic Impact
Over the past decade, China has behaved increasingly as a malign actor—not just in the Pacific region but around the world. It has destroyed pristine reefs to engineer false territory and falsely claimed international waters as its own. China has used economic pressure, military expansionism, and threats of violence to intimidate less powerful democratic nations. The only moderator to its vigorous expansionism has been a powerful U.S. and allied military presence in areas China is trying to influence, and the most visible manifestation of that military presence is an aircraft carrier strike group. 
Taking an aircraft carrier off-line significantly undercuts the strategic posture in the region. That is a decision that cannot be made at the O-6 level, which brings us to Captain Crozier’s now infamous letter—and, sadly, to motive. The fact that the letter was sent around in unclassified channels and leaked means the Chinese received it at the same time as the Pentagon. If one believes Crozier was correct in writing and disseminating his letter widely (but not to any specific persons in his leadership chain), how was it supposed to play out? What would “victory” have looked like? Do we think it was the right thing for him to do because “he tried?” Even Yoda knows that merely “trying” is not enough. Isn’t “success” the only true measure of success?
If someone wants help urgently, they call 911. They don’t email 911. It takes busy senior leaders hours, if not days, to get through their inboxes. The “I emailed you because my house was burning down and I needed help” narrative does not resonate. There were other, arguably more effective, avenues available to the captain. 
Yes, this is 20/20 hindsight, and yes, Captain Crozier was under a lot of pressure. But that is true for all post-mission analysis— that it is informed by hindsight analysis of people under pressure. Why has the inclination been to treat this matter differently?
Military decisions must always be made in an environment that is as devoid of emotion as possible, even more so during a crisis. Captain Crozier was right to be worried about his crew. He was right to escalate. He was right to communicate the interests of his crew and to let the chain of command deconflict competing demands. But his letter was infected with an emotional narrative that should be avoided in the rational analysis of options.
This event exposed issues that get to the foundations of the Navy and command at sea. These are matters worthy of debate. Not only does this discussion not need to wait for the investigation to be complete, it should inform the investigation. 
Today, physicians are dealing with existential crises in hospitals around the world that are more acute than that faced on USS Theodore Roosevelt. Most of those physicians have no military training or experience, and yet they are, for the most part, handling the crisis magnificently, unemotionally, and with little drama. How would we react if those critical “soldiers” on the front lines of this fight allowed their emotions to influence their triage or treatment their patients?
We should not expect anything less from leaders in our Navy.
Articles Leadership

A Failure of Discipline Under Captain Crozier’s Command

This was the first piece written in reaction to the significant lack of balance in national coverage of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID issue, which seemed to ignore national strategic implications of a COVID infection that started in China and then took out of action the only American aircraft carrier deployed in the China theater of operations. It was published in Wall Street Journal on April 6, 2020. The second piece was written about the great media reaction to the perception that Crozier’s actions were appropriate because they were driven by “love” for and by his crew, and was published in US Naval Institute Proceedings a week later. The third piece was written to explore the larger issues of weighing what was best for the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt against the spread of infection to the older, less healthy, and largely low income population of American citizens residing in Guam.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly relieved Capt. Brett Crozier of command last week after the press published a letter about a Covid-19 outbreak on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. I agonize for Capt. Crozier, who has tested positive for Covid himself. I too once commanded a warship, and I once took a controversial position at risk to my own career.
Yet I regret his decision. The video of the crew paying respects to Capt. Crozier as he leaves the Roosevelt demonstrates his popularity. But it leaves me with grave concern over the feelings first zeitgeist on display, and it causes me concern that the crew’s actions will make the ship’s situation much worse.
This event gives a worrisome peek into the fraying of America’s military command structure. That structure relies on aggregated wisdom and dispersed power. It replaces emotion with cold logic. It reins in impulse with carefully considered protocols and procedures. None of those virtues are evident in how the Roosevelt incident played out.
No doubt Capt. Crozier was concerned about the Covid crisis and wanted to escalate the issue to protect his crew. That desire is to be commended. But the crew’s welfare is only part of a Navy captain’s responsibilities, which are global in scope. Capt. Crozier’s letter effectively recommended that the Navy take an operational, forward-deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier offline, an event that would be classified and carry significant strategic implications world-wide, hence would have to be escalated to the president. From that standpoint, the Roosevelt was not Capt. Crozier’s ship, it was America’s. But to shotgun that kind of recommendation in a letter via an unclassified email is a violation of the highest order.
Capt. Crozier’s defenders have said he was speaking truth to power. But he could have done so directly. He could have generated serious action with a properly classified, immediate precedence “Personal for” naval message to any of at least five operational commanders in his chain of command. He could have reached out directly to the Navy secretary. Instead, according to Mr. Modly, Capt. Crozier shotgunned, thereby losing control of, an email containing classified details reflecting the state of readiness of one of America’s most important ships. The upshot is that the Chinese received Capt. Crozier’s letter at the same time as the Pentagon.
The Navy doesn’t always get it right. I spent more than a decade defending Capt. Charles McVay III. He commanded the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis when it was sunk in July 1945, the worst at-sea disaster in U.S. naval history. Like Capt. Crozier, McVay’s story captured national headlines. McVay’s surviving crew rallied around him, fighting to vindicate him even after his 1968 suicide.
McVay was convicted by a court-martial for “hazarding his vessel” by failing to take action the Navy believed would have spared his ship from a Japanese submarine attack. For more than 50 years his crew fought for his exoneration. In 1998 they recruited me—then captain of the submarine that bears the same name as their sunken cruiser—to aid their case. My role was to demonstrate through computer modeling that even if McVay had taken the recommended action, the Japanese attack would likely have succeeded. The Navy dug in and insisted it had acted properly 54 years earlier. I was warned that for the good of my future I needed to learn how to become a “company man,” but I pressed on. Congress passed a resolution exonerating McVay in 2000, and the Navy secretary officially cleared his record in 2001.
Which brings me back to the video of Capt. Crozier leaving his ship. McVay’s crew exhibited more discipline for the greater good of the ship than we saw in the Roosevelt video.
In today’s culture, even in the military, the “right” side of an issue tends increasingly to start with feelings. Social media posts—“We stand with Captain Crozier”—don’t merely reflect attitudes; they drive behavior among the public and, more troubling, among young sailors. The Journal reports that some sailors say they won’t re-enlist over the way they perceive the incident to have been handled. Imagine if this trend continues to its logical extreme—military decisions by Twitter mob.
And while Capt. Crozier recommended the crew be removed from his ship, it’s clear there was much they could have done but didn’t, as evidenced by their social-distance-be-damned rockstar departure celebration, which will likely leave them with more Covid-19 infections. The video suggests that the crew didn’t know—or worse, didn’t care—that their behavior was the naval equivalent of standing on top of a hill with bullets flying around them to generate an Instagram moment. Such behavior reflects poorly on their commander.
Command is a privilege. I pray for the recovery of Capt. Crozier and everyone else who’s been infected. But this event’s legacy also includes thousands, military and civilian, beguiled into rooting for an ineffective form of leadership, a loss of faith in a chain of command that was never properly invoked, and a horrified home front—not to mention media pundits making matters worse by sounding off on issues they don’t understand.
Articles Military History Submarines

Correcting the Legacy of Los Angeles-Class Submarines

This article was written following my attendance at the commissioning ceremony of USS Indianapolis (LCS-17), when speaker after speaker highlighted only the Cold War contributions of the submarine I commanded, USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). It became clear that many senior Navy leaders misunderstood the significant impact of the Los Angeles class of submarines during the post-Cold War period.

The space systems engineering curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School offered only one class on manned spaceflight. The professor began the class by summarizing the accomplishments of NASA in low earth orbit. After twenty minutes of orbit corrections, maneuver, docking, spacewalks, and other early space program breakthroughs, a student finally raised his hand and said, “Professor, you do know that NASA put men on the moon, don’t you?”


I had a similar reaction at the 26 October commissioning of the USS Indianapolis (LCS-17) in Burns Harbor, Indiana. More than 10,000 attendees sat in a cold rain listening to six nearly identical speeches. It was as if the speechwriters all drew from the same incomplete Wikipedia article. Each speech started on the right note, regaling the accomplishments of the storied cruiser of the same name, USS Indianapolis (CA-35), and honoring the four survivors in attendance. Since I have been working with the cruiser survivors for more than 20 years, I know that no matter how many times their story is told, it is not enough.


But then each speaker attempted to highlight the service of the submarine I had commanded, USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), with a short statement about the submarine’s contributions to ending the Cold War.1 Because this was the only SSN-697 accomplishment cited by any of the six speakers, at the end of the ceremony I was tempted to say to the assembled group of senior leaders, “You do know the Cold War ended in 1989, don’t you?”2


The point of highlighting the accomplishments of earlier ships named Indianapolis at the LCS-17 commissioning should have been to convey to the crew the legacy they were inheriting, and to “connect the dots” for the attending public. If so, an opportunity was missed to educate the attendees, as well as many more watching online, on U.S. submarine force contributions after the Cold War.


While this may seem a minor point on such a momentous occasion, each speech minimized or ignored the contributions of hundreds of sailors who conducted missions that were vitally important, incredibly difficult, and often even more dangerous than the Cold War missions these leaders referenced. Nearly all of SSN-697’s major accomplishments, which include Battle Efficiency awards and a Navy Unit Commendation, occurred after the Cold War ended. While it is reasonable to expect senior Navy and defense leaders to educate themselves on the history of the ships on which they are commenting, the ceremony’s incomplete narrative is not entirely the fault pf the speakers. The submarine force has not done a good job of telling its post–Cold War history and so the misperception proliferates. The speeches were founded on a simple, common, but erroneous narrative that can be captured in these two bullets:


  • The Los Angeles–class submarine = The Hunt for Red October (Cold War)

  • The Virginia-class submarine = everything since

 That narrative is wrong.

Having served in Los Angeles–class submarines for two junior-officer tours, two department head tours, a commanding officer tour, and a commodore tour—nineboats spanning from before to well after the end of the Cold War—I can correct the record.3


While the Cold War is regarded as beginning a short time after the end of World War II and ending in 1989, the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) was not commissioned until 1976. When I reported to my first submarine in 1981, there were only four Los Angeles-class submarines in my homeport of Pearl Harbor.4

And the early years for those submarines were rough. Because spare parts had been underfunded so drastically in the late 1970s, three of the submarines had to be cannibalized to get the fourth underway. In the 1980s, construction of these nuclear-powered attack submarines accelerated rapidly, and, by 1984, almost all were operational. Thus, much older Permit– (SSN-594) and Sturgeon-class (SSN-637) submarines conducted the vast majority of Cold War operations from the 1960s through 1989. Most Los Angeles–class submarines had only a few years of Cold War operations before the Berlin Wall came down.

This is not to imply these submarines did not contribute to winning the Cold War—they certainly did. I served in
Los Angeles boats during the Cold war for five “missions of vital security to the defense of the United States” (as they were officially referred to), and I can certify that their contribution was immense. There are no submarines I would rather have crewed at that time than the USS Omaha (SSN-692), Indianapolis, and Buffalo (SSN-715)—my boats through the end of the Cold War. But the Cold War ended just a few years into the life of the Los Angeles class itself, and the subsequent missions those submarines were tasked to conduct changed drastically.

By the early 1990s, the only fast-attack submarines left in the force were the Los Angeles-class. This is when they really began to shine, as the post–Cold War contributions of the class were even greater than during the Cold War. The SSN-688 boats were designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be very fast and keep up with, screen, and protect carrier battlegroups against enemy submarines. While they were very fast, by the 1990s they rarely conducted the carrier screening missions. Instead, their speed allowed them to dart from one hotspot to another to monitor evolving situations and provide “eyes on” for the National Command Authority, improving an understanding about what was really happening in those areas. Their stealth allowed them to do this in an unprovocative manner. Nobody knew where they were, unless we wanted them to know.


Their highly capable sensors allowed them to sweep the electromagnetic spectrum for every kind of signal, from weapon testing to terrorist planning. Their weapons allowed them to strike more than a thousand miles inland, while also holding any seaborne target vulnerable to neutralization. Their special-operations capability allowed them to conduct covert insertions, extractions, and interdiction missions. And their superb maneuverability allowed them to get into much more difficult areas than needed during the Cold War, a critical factor considering the targets that now needed monitoring.


The Los Angeles class is a fantastic class of submarine, straddling the twilight years of the Cold War through the present day. While details of their missions will likely be classified longer than I will be alive, the achievements of the crews who served in them after the Cold War’s end were greater than most might imagine.

This was true for the USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), and I regret not a word about this was uttered at the LCS-17 commissioning. The Los Angeles–class submarine is still serving our country today. Let us hope U.S. leaders figure that out and start giving the post–Cold War Los Angeles–class sailors their due.

  1. I actually served on USS Indianapolis (SSN-697) three times: two tours during the Cold War (junior officer and department head) and one tour after the Cold War ended as commanding officer.

  2. Based on the declaration by George H. W. Bush on 3 December 1989.

  3. From 1981 through 2004, I also served a junior-officer tour in the USS Omaha (SSN-692) and a department-head tour in the Buffalo (SSN-715). As commodore of Submarine Squadron 3, I had six Los Angeles–class submarines in my squadron: the USS Olympia (SSN-717), Chicago (SSN-721), Key West (SSN-722), Louisville (SSN-724), Helena (SSN-725), and Columbia (SSN-771). The only tour I served away from the Los Angeles–class was as executive officer of the USS Florida (SSBN-728) (Gold).

  4. The USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), Omaha (SSN-692), New York City (SSN-696), and Indianapolis (SSN-697).

Articles Movie/Video Review Submarines

This is the submarine to ride: “The Wolf’s Call.”

After being asked to watch and review the horrible limited series remake of Das Boot on streaming TV, I decided to write this review of the French submarine movie, “Call of the Wolf,” to point the requestor towards something that wouldn’t drive a submariner crazy while watching. First published in IMDB.
After forcing myself to sit through 4 of the 8 episodes of the horrible Hulu miniseries “Das Boot,” (see my review titled “Abandon This Ship”), John Jones pointed me to a French submarine movie, “The Wolf’s Call” that he said was on the big screens in Ukraine. I found it on Netflix.
As bad as the Hulu/German submarine miniseries “Das Boot” is, the French submarine movie “The Wolf’s Call” is that good.

(The movie starts with a wonderful Aristotle quote: “There are three kinds of human beings, the living, the dead, and those who go to sea….” What a great quote. Because most “famous” quotes are improperly attributed (examples, Einstein never said “spend 55 minutes studying problem and five minutes solving it,” Mark Twain never said “golf was a good walk spoiled,” Abraham Lincoln never said “better to stay silent and let them think you a fool…”), I looked for verification that Aristotle really said this, and found none. Oh, well. It’s a great quote for those of us who’ve spent years at sea, so I’d like it to be accurate. But I digress.)


As bad as the Hulu/German submarine miniseries “Das Boot” is, the French submarine movie “The Wolf’s Call” is that good. Not only is it good, it may be the best submarine movie since “Crimson Tide” (I have a personal affinity for that one.). Certainly, the best submarine movie of the 21st Century. (Sorry George Wallace—I loved your book, but the “Hunter-Killer” movie was just a tiny bit over the top, so rates a tiny bit below “Wolf” from my point of view. Maybe I’m tired of Hollywood casting so many Brits to play Americans, but Wolf was incredibly nuanced, and does the best job of any movie since “Hunt for Red October” in conveying the nail-biting nature of undersea warfare.)


A few highlights:


  • Gotta love a movie that includes both submarines and SEALs. Or do the French refer to their SEALs as “FROGs?” (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
  • Apparently, the French man their sonar stacks with officers? I qualified on sonar when I was Sonar Officer, but I could never do anything like what this dude does. This Ensign is better on sonar than the best ACINT specialist I ever saw. Maybe that’s the way the French really do it?
  • How is it that the French have better underway uniforms than we do?
  • These guys have implemented my Full Spectrum ASW concepts better than the US Navy has. Warms my heart. They actually use active sonar to shape a submarine captain’s behavior, just like we wrote!
  • Dig that boomer wardroom! Submarines by Four Seasons. All we had was a fish tank in Crew’s Mess on Indy.
  • Best line from the movie: Admiral to Captain: “Why doesn’t that computer work?” Captain to Admiral: “Because this is France.”
  • Finally see a sailor struggling to move around the boat in an Emergency Air Breathing (EAB) device, just like I used to do. Now that’s realism!
  • Console monitor display from the movie that I wish I had on my submarine: “Torpedo Party!” When I saw this computer screen on the movie submarine, I thought they were about to play music and break out beer in the Torpedo Room. But it turns out the display really said “Torpedo Partie,” which I guess in French means “torpedo away” (as in, Torpedo Launched). Too bad, Torpedo Party sounded like a lot more fun.
  • Hey, they actually used the escape trunk! But the dude didn’t do his “ho ho ho…” on the way up to the surface and would have been embolized. Glad I only had to do that once (in sub school).
  • They actually did a wreath-laying like we did on the Indy in honor of the cruiser Indy. But they did it from the deck of a boomer with way higher freeboard, in protected waters, so nobody had to risk getting washed overboard.

And of course, the movie wasn’t perfect, so I can’t help but point out a few quibbles:

  • They continuously pass “rig ship for ultra-quiet” on the 1MC. That’s like screaming “BE QUIET!!!” at the top of your lungs…. Kinda defeats the point.
  • An officer pops positive for cannabis and is surprised this happened?
  • I’m certain there must be a French law that requires all French movies to contain at least one unnecessary/inappropriate scene. This one is no different. How unfortunate—it limits the spectrum of whom I’m willing to recommend the movie to.
  • The actors’ salutes are all funky. Some do it “Brit style” (palm forward), some American style. Are they really this confused in the French navy?
  • French submarines must be part of their Coast Guard because they never operate so far from shore that a helicopter can’t reach them.
  • Oh-oh… tired cliché #1: the XO’s fighting the captain again. Seems to have happened in every submarine movie since “Run Silent Run Deep.” Glad my XOs Chas Doty and Brian Fletcher didn’t behave this way!
  • And yes, of course, tired cliché #2: a torpedo falls and injures a sailor. This phenomenon happens in every single submarine movie ever made but never happened on any one of my boats. How lucky I must have been. Wait, my first boat did drop a test shape into the torpedo room, maybe it’s not so silly after all…
All in all, very entertaining, and recommended.
Articles Movie/Video Review Submarines

Das Boot: Abandon this Ship

I was asked to do this review of the new submarine miniseries that was streaming on Hulu. Having loved the Wolfgang Petersen movie of the same name, I had high hopes for this remake. As you will read below, I was sorely disappointed.
As a submariner, an aficionado of submarine movies, and someone who loved Wolfgang Petersen’s original film, I was really looking forward to seeing the limited series of “Das Boot.” Petersen’s film is one of my favorites. He really gave voice to the gritty, stinky, unpleasant, fear-stricken reality of a submarine in combat. Because there is just so more depth you can go into with a miniseries that you can’t cover in even a 2-hour feature film, I expected the limited series to be a remarkable experience.
…a movie about U-boats turns itself into an opportunity to sneer at the nation that liberated Europe.
But over the first four episodes of this series (the point at which I finally had to stop watching), the show crossed from merely bad filmmaking, into the realm of egregious, outrageous nonsense. Where it crossed the line: by grossly misinforming viewers, the majority of whom are unaware and ignorant of World War II history and events, of some of the most significant events in the European theater of operations. For example, the only American character in this European Union-made drama is a distinguished American citizen who is actually a war profiteer secretly selling the Nazis equipment in order to finance his ambitions to be president. So, in part, a movie about U-boats turns itself into an opportunity to sneer at the nation that liberated Europe. This plot point crossed the line from merely being a dramatic device to outrageously offensive crap. Draw your own conclusions as to the truth of such a message, but it outrages me. If you think my reading of that message is over the top, then I’ll just tick off a few of the hundreds of the tired cliches that make this a bad fit of melodrama masquerading as suspense:
  • Unproven officer trying to live up to his hero-father’s legacy? Check.
  • Mutinous XO trying at every turn to undercut his unproven captain? Check
  • Melodramatic backstory of Gestapo officer trying to woo French citizen by proving he’s just a normal guy forced to uphold the orders of those evil men back in Berlin? Check.
  • Communist partisan power female figure who chain-smokes cigarettes while embarrassing the male partisans into action? Check.
  • Second partisan female who is captured in perhaps the stupidest, most canned bit of police action you can ever imagine, then goes to prison and endures relentless torture protecting the identity of “the guys,” eventually volunteering to die rather than snitch? Check.
  • Gratuitous violence against women? Check.
  • De rigueur scene where torpedo breaks loose in torpedo room critically injuring a sailor? Check.
  • German sailor who gets a Jewish girl pregnant and has to get fake American passports to get her out of the country, a scene straight out of Casablanca? Check.
  • Sailor actors leaning into nonexistent wind while supposedly steaming at Ahead Full on the surface, but are really bobbing up and down on a fake submarine that’s dead-in-the-water, going nowhere? Check.
  • Nearly everyone understands and speaks English when it’s advantageous for the story for them to do so, but otherwise speaks only in subtitled German? Check.
  • The Gestapo officer and the German Navy Commodore break into English whenever they are alone with each other, while neither can actually speak French, the country that they have occupied and in which they live? Check.
  • The misunderstood Nazi who is really a nice guy but is merely following orders from those evil dudes in Berlin? Check. (There must have been a couple million nice guy Nazis merely following orders during that war.)
  • The Nazi sympathizer whose eyes are opened in response to insidious action by the Nazis, eventually turning her into a Partisan? (I didn’t actually stay with the program long enough to confirm that she does, but that’s where her obvious trajectory is taking her, so Check.)
  • The jack-booted Nazi who thinks those cowardly, traitorous dudes back in Berlin aren’t pushing hard enough to win the war? Check.
  • The happy, cheerful French house of ill repute with welcoming kind-hearted French women, who say they are merely allowing the jack-booted, women-beating German soldiers to “have a good time?” Check.
  • The prisoner exchange of an American who has an audacious, affected, over-the-top New York accent, the kind you only hear in movies? Check.
  • The “it was a setup!” prisoner exchange on an American ship that somehow couldn’t have anticipated that the German submarine would be able to sink them if the exchange didn’t go as planned, and are “shocked shocked” that the bad Germans would ever do such a thing, forcing the Americans to do what they actually committed to do? Check.
  • The partisans who have dialogs where one side speaks nothing but English while the other side responds with nothing but French, like C3PO talking to R2D2? Check.
  • The captain who is held out as a coward by his crew when he decides to actually follow orders to disengage from battle and instead carry out a special operation of great importance to the defense of Germany? Check.
  • The captain who, when a sailor somehow fails to die after being shot by a firing squad, pulls out a Lugar and shoots the kid himself? Check.
Oh, I could go on. But I won’t. I’ve given up watching the thing.
I had to GIVE THE BOOT to “Das Boot”
Articles Military History USS Indianapolis

Sometimes Wonderful Just Comes Too Late

In August 2017 I had the bittersweet task of notifying survivors of World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) that their ship had been discovered. After years of anticipation, I expected an exuberant reaction. This article describes how it really went down.
Within all the bad news coming out of Seventh Fleet these days, there was one bit of well-covered good news: the long-awaited discovery of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Of course, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s expedition wasn’t the first attempt to locate the ship.
Back in 2000, the Discovery Channel funded an expedition to locate the wreckage of the Indianapolis. At that time, there were more than 200 survivors alive, most of them in their 70s, and the search for their ship was one of the most anticipated events in their lifetimes. I was the recently relieved skipper of the submarine bearing the same name.
It had become clear to me a few years earlier that, correct or not, the survivors were of the opinion that the Navy didn’t like them very much. This was partly because of the very public campaign these World War II heroes had been waging to effect the exoneration of their court-martialed captain, Charles Butler McVay, but that is a story for another day.
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
While working in the Pentagon for the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, I began to understand why the survivors felt disenfranchised from the Navy. I was witness to several events where the service I loved slighted the Indianapolis survivors in ways large and small. (See Sara Vladic’s excellent 5 September article in Proceedings Today, “Lost Survivor of the USS Indianapolis Found,” for an example of where the Navy consistently came across as condescending to the survivors over a period of decades.)
Because I believed (hoped) that the factors dividing the survivors from the Navy were matters of misunderstanding rather than malice, I decided to play the role of interlocutor, adopting the survivors as their unofficial Navy liaison.
Or to be more accurate, they adopted me.
By the time the 2000 “search for the Indy” began, McVay’s exoneration had been passed by Congress and the survivors were in a particularly euphoric state. From their point of view, only one item remained undone—to locate their ship. This, then, became the focus of their efforts.
The gentleman leading that 2000 expedition, Curt Newport, recently had achieved some degree of fame in locating Gus Grissom’s Mercury space program capsule, Liberty Bell 7, which had sunk in the Atlantic in 1961. The latest in remotely operated vehicle technology was being used by Curt and his team, and four survivors of the sinking—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Mike Kuryla, and Woody James—were going along on the voyage to provide perspective and commentary.
Emotions were high, and a great sense of anticipation prevailed. There were talks of the parties we would enjoy when the great day arrived, and the survivors even talked about leasing a cruise ship from which to conduct a memorial service at the site of the sinking, in honor of their lost shipmates. Better yet, they held out hope that some kind philanthropist would underwrite such a venture and that I could help arrange some of these things for them.
Unfortunately, that expedition did not succeed, for reasons that would not become apparent until more than a decade later. The survivors’ excitement about the potential for discovery waned a bit, only to rise again whenever rumors of another search would begin to take shape.
Every few years another explorer or TV network or documentary filmmaker would visit the survivors and announce their intention to reinvigorate the search. Paul Murphy, chairman of the survivors’ organization, would call me and say, “Bill, it’s a go! We’re going back!” Some of these searchers were legitimate and well-intentioned, some less so. Regardless of my attempts to modulate the survivors’ excitement to protect them from the incapable or unscrupulous, they always would want it to be true. The commissioned officer survivors like John Woolston and Harlan Twible would delve into matters of naval architecture and make suppositions on the condition of the wreck as it would be found on the bottom. Beers would be drunk and celebratory plans would be dusted off, only to be dashed again when the legitimate explorers began to fully comprehend the cost of such a venture or when the posers would vanish into the night.
Repeated, phantom promises are crueler still when one’s life has been full of tragic events.
And so it went for the next 15 years, until a chance sequence of events caught a historian’s eye, leading to a rethinking of the ship’s final track.
The key ingredient was one of God’s greatest creations: “the Google.” Or to be more precise, Google alerts.
Years ago, I set up a Google alert so that anytime news involving the Indianapolis—either the World War II ship or my submarine—arose on the “interweb,” an alert would be emailed to me. One such alert popped up a couple of years ago, generated by a posting on a small candy store website in small town America. The alert said something about the business owner’s father having once seen the cruiser Indianapolis while he was under way in the waning days of World War II.
I deleted the alert, finding it uninteresting. Dr. Richard Hulver of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) did not. Neither did retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox, director of NHHC and a caring leader who treasures our World War II heroes.
For decades, the Navy had shown disdain for all things Indianapolis. But this time it was different. Admiral Cox directed that this lead be followed.
Dr. Hulver tracked down the service record of the father of the business owner, learning that he served on LST-779. He then pulled the LST’s deck logs from the archives and ferreted out the ship’s track, finding that at the time of the sighting, the LST had been running well north of the Indianapolis’s track of planned intended movement.
He cross-referenced the report of the sighting by the LST against an oblique statement by Captain McVay about seeing an LST prior to the sinking, and he concluded that the Indianapolis’s self-reported location of the sinking was well south of her actual track.
Although Dr. Hulver didn’t say it, the fact that a zigzagging ship in World War II was north of where it believed it should be is not surprising, particularly given that the skies were overcast that night and the ship was unable to take a celestial fix when it got dark. Wind and currents, along with imprecise ship movements, are difficult to correct for using dead reckoning alone.
This new information was compared to new Japanese reference material, initiating revised drift analysis for the sinking ship, which was conducted by a Naval Academy midshipman.
Serendipitously, in 2015, prior to learning about Dr. Hulver’s research, Paul Allen had authorized the purchase of special remotely operated vehicle and autonomous underwater vehicle equipment that could reach the deepest parts of the Pacific, with the intention of reinvigorating the hunt for the Indianapolis, underwater archeology being one of his many philanthropic pursuits.
As so often happens, a series of chance events occurred: a website entry triggered a Google alert, which caught the eye of a historian, which then was used by Allen’s team to update their intended search location.
When Allen’s Vulcan team contacted NHHC early this year to say they intended to conduct a search for the Indianapolis this summer, Admiral Cox authorized sharing the new information on the ship’s track with them, and NHHC then connected Vulcan with me. Because I was aware of Dr. Hulver’s recent analysis, I was hopeful the updated position would give Allen a much better chance of success, but truth be told, I held out little hope.
And so, when I was notified by the Navy early on 19 August that the ship had been found and I was authorized to notify the survivors in advance of the news being released, I was overjoyed.
I realized we had only a couple hours to complete notification before the news became public, so I canceled my solar eclipse plans for that day and immediately enlisted the help of “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” documentary filmmaker Sara Vladic. Despite it being 4 a.m. California time, she answered my call and jumped in to help notify survivors.
I had expected our news to generate absolute exuberance from the survivors, even better than the joy I’d witnessed during our “near-miss” events of years past. To a man, they were all grateful for Paul Allen’s largess and happy their ship had been found. But although their words expressed joy, their tone seemed to convey a different emotion. Muted. Melancholy. Even a bit of sadness, perhaps.
At first, I presumed the news might be bringing up thoughts of their lost shipmates, and I began to inquire about this. No, I was told. They had processed those emotions decades ago.
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
Another survivor didn’t seem to understand what I was telling him.
Another said simply, “I wish Paul Murphy was still around to hear this. You know there are only 22 of us left.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the actual number was 19.
Then it occurred to me that what was happening as I played this event out for them is that they were replaying in their heads conversations they had had with other survivors in years, even decades, past. All those people—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Giles McCoy, Glenn and Gene Morgan—were now gone.
And those who remained, now in their 90s, had perhaps exhausted their supply of patience and joy, waiting for this event to happen.
They all thought it was wonderful.
But sometimes, wonderful just comes too late.