by Willie Lagarde
We always respected an officers rank but not always the man.
We liked some of them, had mixed feelings about some and disliked others.
Some officers were born leaders and we trusted them instinctively. If they were strict or demanding we knew this was the way it had to be.
We quickly identified those who were career obsessed and learned to stay out of their way.
Only one or two officers in our experience had no redeeming qualities and we sometimes wondered if they were on our side. We respected these men like we would a child with a loaded gun in his hand.
Other than some of the older junior officers who were ex-enlisted and with whom we felt a kinship, we never engaged them in conversation unless they initiated it.
Academy officers were a rarity and though they were derisively referred to as “ring knockers” by some of the reserve officers, we found they were often more approachable and sympathetic to any complaint we may have. They had three or four years of Navy indoctrination and experience when they came aboard our ship. Many reserve officers had only a few months service and sometimes were still civilians when we were in combat. It was hard to generate respect for them.
It was one of this type that I ran afoul of at a time when we weren’t making many long range plans for the future.
He was a young ensign who had been assigned a battle station on our gun deck. We wondered where he came from but there he was properly attired in helmet and life jacket. Once or twice he dutifully applied his “war paint”. We had no personal feelings about him one way or another but were giving him his space and otherwise ignoring him.
When condition “one easy” was set it meant we stayed on battle stations but could relax with one or two men staying alert. The rest of the men could try to sleep, play cards or just talk about the home town and good times of the past.
I almost felt sorry for this little ensign, he was like a lost soul. He surely felt he couldn’t lay down on the deck or play cards with the men. He could have, I’m sure had he sat in a game he would have been dealt a hand. What ever ground rules there were for fraternization under those circumstances, he set them. He would just pace around the relatively confined space on the gun deck, at times having to step over sleeping men.
One day while at condition “one easy” Hughie had the phones on and I was scanning the horizon with the binoculars. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when he came up to me and asked, “what do you see out there”. This was the first time any of us ever heard him say a word. The question took me by surprise and because I had been telling my gun crew mates at times I saw spots, I blurted out “spots.” A couple of my buddies heard this and started laughing. He walked away from me and I didn’t realize at the time he probably thought I as making fun of him. I wasn’t.
It was a few days later, same conditions, when we secured from general quarters at sunset. Since I had the 8 to 12 watch I stayed on the gun deck. Sunrise GQ would probably sound at around 5AM so at midnight, seeing a good sleeping spot was available on top the ready box, I decided to take it until GQ sounded.
Either because I subconsciously knew I was already on my battle station or because I was exhausted I slept through the gong, bugle and bosun pipe.
I was dreaming I heard it and gotten up to routinely start the motors and test the gun control. Somebody was hollering at me in the dream. One of my buddies touched me on the ankle and I woke up to the little ensign screaming at me about not responding to GQ. I tried to explain about my dream but he kept on until I though he would have a stroke. I almost lost my temper, I said, "for God’s sake I’m only six feet from the damn gun what do you want me to do, go hug it."
“I want you on your feet!”, said the Ensign.
At this point it took all will power I could muster to not say anymore or worse, make the biggest mistake of my life and swing at him. In retrospect, he had it in for me ever since the “spots” incident and felt this was his chance to pay back. Anyone hearing him carrying on would have thought next stop for me was a firing squad.
He finally shut up but one of my friends reminded me he could make trouble for me. I agreed.
Later that day I saw my division officer and figured I’d better get my side of the story in before ensign (never did know his name) could get any disciplinary procedure started. Guilty or innocent you can never be sure of the outcome. I was thinking of Billy Budd’s fate.
Not surprisingly the division officer had already heard about the incident and told me to “forget about it." I did, but not completely, over half a century later the sights and sound of that day remain clear in my memory
We never saw the little ensign again. Not that anyone really cared, we never even heard about him.