Man Overboard!

The current kerfuffle over probable deserter Bowe Bergdahl reminds me of a true sea story.

It was 1971 or 1972 and I was the Executive Officer (second in command) of a U.S. Navy stores ship steaming across the Atlantic to help replenish the Sixth Fleet. It was a beautiful day at sea, puffy white clouds and periods of sun, sea state about 2 (no whitecaps). On that afternoon, one of our crew, a very junior Seaman, calmly put on a lifejacket, walked up to the side of the forecastle (f’o’s’le, the front of the ship), waved his arms in the air to get the attention of personnel on the bridge, and jumped overboard.



A stores ship, by its nature, does lots of “ship handling”, including alongside replenishment in close proximity to other ships, and our officers took pride in their skills that way. The Officer of the Deck promptly executed a perfect man-overboard drill, performing a “Williamson Turn” (hard-left rudder!) to maneuver the ship’s screw away from the now-bobbing man as he passed down the ship’s side and reversing course back down the same track.  We came to a stop while lowering one of our boats and its crew motored over to the bobbing miscreant and fished him out of the water – it all took about 8 minutes after the jump.

That is the only time I ever saw our CO, a four-striper, lose his cool. His face was a nice red, trending toward purple as I recall, and he kept mumbling the word, “insane”. The young man told his shipmates afterward that it was only after he was in the water that he thought about sharks, much less being chopped to shreds by the ship’s propeller. (The man-overboard procedure provided for a sharpshooter who duly took up his station, but no fins were seen.)

Our bobber had apparently decided that he really didn’t like the life of a junior Seaman and thought this might be his ticket home. Maybe he saw the 1970 movie, MASH and was copying Corporal Klinger, I don’t know. He might have been a draftee, we did have some aboard at that time. I detested the draft – a combat organization where everyone depends on everyone else is no place for malcontents.

The incident also had interesting effects on the rest of the crew. Many saw it as amusing and a boredom-breaker, some were struck by the foolhardiness of it, but the Second Class Petty Officers (pay grade E-2) were pissed off big-time. Why the latter? Because the Captain threw the ocean-bobber in our tiny brig, and that meant that there had to be a guard there, 24/7. Guess who, by regulation, comprised the additional-duty guard? Right, the E-2’s.

We dumped our bobber on the Navy shore establishment in the Med at the first opportunity, along with charge papers. I can’t remember the charge now, wish I could. Several weeks later we were alongside another ship, replenishing by high line 60 to 100 feet off our port side when I heard somebody say, “look, there he is!” Sure enough, there amid the work detail on the other ship, lugging supplies, was our infamous bobber. I wasn’t close enough to the Captain to hear his reaction, and was glad of it.

Military service is serious business. We expect to take young men, some as young as 18, and turn them instantaneously into responsible, motivated men. That’s what basic training is all about. But no matter how good that training, people are different. Some succeed instinctually and some never get it. It’s essential, I submit, that those early times be a winnowing process and that we let the unfit wash out.

Sgt. Bergdahl was by all accounts an unusual recruit, and it’s already apparent to me that he didn’t fit the Army.  Even worse than jumping overboard, he foolishly deserted his comrades in a combat zone and by so doing very likely got some of them killed. He needs to be held accountable according to military law and, if my assumptions here are proven, he should at least be dishonorably discharged and deprived of any benefits of service.

I have to add, at this preliminary point, that I think the president and his advisors made a serious mistake in how they handled this. I have defended president Obama in the past when his lack of military experience has been challenged, but I can not in this case. All military people are not heroes. Some of them jump overboard, and some desert. This is a costly mistake that I think is destined to haunt the president.  Knowing him to be a man of character, I think he will take it as a lesson.  It’s going to be painful.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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24 Responses to Man Overboard!

  1. PiedType says:

    I’d never heard the details of the man overboard drill. That Williamson Turn … very interesting.

    Just an hour ago I paused to listen to the details of the Bergdahl release. His former group leader was on CNN and it sounded for all the world like as many as 6 men died as a result of mission changes to look for the missing Bergdahl. And it sounds like he wasn’t dangerously ill and Congress should have gotten their 30 days’ notice, etc. I don’t like how the media are so quick to pile on and discredit Bergdahl before we hear his side of the story, but I agree, it sure sounds like Obama has screwed up rather badly on this.


  2. Jim in IA says:

    I have been out of the loop on this story. I saw a headline that we traded him for some taliban. But, other things have taken my time and attention. Thank you for your insight.


  3. Jeff Little says:

    “This is a costly mistake that I think is destined to haunt the president. Knowing him to be a man of character, I think he will take it as a lesson. It’s going to be painful.”

    I am not sure what you are talking about. What connection could Obama possibly have with an AWOL enlistee? Disclaimer. I never watch Fox news, so if there was something there, I would have missed it.

    In general, though, I would remind of the Stalin quote. “If you kill one man, it’s murder. If you kill a million, then it’s a statistic.” I am constantly amazed by the volume of people calling up a lynch mob over 4 dead in an Embassy attack under Hillary who were completely silent during lots of Embassy deaths in attacks under Bush.

    What a strange system we live under where it is ok to cause hundreds, thousands, or even over a million deaths, but somehow doing less to be more indirectly responsible for a single death we have a picture of becomes a major crime that needs to be pursued all trumpets blaring.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are bad things involving just a single individual, but 9 times out of 10 the people complaining the most have personally done a thousand times worse.


  4. John Hester says:


    I wish you had spent as much time in your post detailing you objection to the prisoner exchange for one of our POW’s. I also would like to know your proposed alternative. Do we leave a man as a POW for the rest of his life because he is accused of some crime? Are you suggesting some other method of bringing this man home, or are you actually suggesting that we forget about him?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      John, I think the president erred on the matter of the prisoner exchange. The principle he violated was one of negotiating with kidnappers. If you do, you thereby encourage the practice of kidnapping. For an example, one need look no further than south of our border to Central and South America where the crime is rampant. Paying the kidnappers creates an industry, and a profitable one.

      In the case of Bergdahl, the president reaches too far in my opinion. He references the precedent in past wars of two sides exchanging POW’s at the end of a war. But that precedent was set in a time when “war” meant a conflict between nations with the expectation that laws on both sides would govern in the ensuing peace. The Afghan “war” is not really a war and the terrorists are not POW’s. The “war” will not be over, there is no surrender to document and no nation to enforce a treaty, even if there were one. The five Talibani are almost certain to return to their terrorist activities. Thus, as I see it, the president was confronted with two choices: save one man (of clearly questionable loyalty to his country), or set a precedent that invites significant and continuing danger to diplomats and other Americans abroad for years to come.


      • Jeff Little says:

        We should also remain aware that these are prisoners held without Miranda, jurisdiction, formal charges, the right to a speedy trial, the right to face their accusers, or Habius Corpus. The only thing that makes their retention even remotely close to legal is that the Afghanistan war is still continuing and that ends in a few months.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          A worthy point that should not be forgotten, I agree. Gitmo is a Gordian knot, an intractable problem not solvable by conventional means. Traditional warfare does not incorporate the evidentiary process required for a judicial process, but perhaps it should. I’m wondering if perhaps soldiers in the near future will wear video cameras for that purpose. The technology is already on police cruisers.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      P.S., John, I see I didn’t answer the rest of your question:

      Are you suggesting some other method of bringing this man home, or are you actually suggesting that we forget about him?

      I absolutely would have favored trying to rescue Bergdahl by means of intelligence and special forces. The principle of leaving no man behind is just as important as not negotiating with terrorists.


      • Jeff Little says:

        I have been assuming from the news bits I have been seeing on the issue that leaving a man behind is exactly what most right-wing commentators seem to be proposing. Or if not, they don’t bother to make that clear. It is good to see that you are not endorsing that.


      • PiedType says:

        I heard one report that said they didn’t try a rescue because he was being moved around too much, that they could have hit 10 camps simultaneously and still not be sure of finding him. Of course we’ve no way of knowing truth from rumor at this point.


  5. “…the bobbing miscreant and fished him out …”
    You’re a good writer, Jim, and I enjoyed reading this story.


  6. aFrankAngle says:

    Your perspective is much more relevant than the political drivel that makes the news. Fortunately for me, I’ve kept quiet on this situation …. after all, more info will be forthcoming. Nonetheless, I find a lot of oddities in the entire situation.


  7. Moe says:

    Great post Jim. Usually you and I find ourselves in agreement, at least in principle, on most things – plus it’s always nice to share the Oldies (yes?).

    You say you ‘detest the draft’. The ugly waste of life in Vietnam made me anti-draft – big time. But for a different reason obviously. Since then though, I’ve changed my mind – I think a standing army should be a ‘citizens’ army, not a professional army. In WWII, when the dentist served beside his plumber and people at home also had shared experiences – of grief, of rationing, of so much more – it made us a better country for quite a while. But that’s gone and except at times like this most people don’t even give a thought to the ones who are fighting and dying. That’s why I think a draft should come back.

    Also I hear repeatedly that the Army had to lower it’s standards for recruits during the wars cuz they just didn’t have enough volunteers. Overweight,, under-educated, even felons.So it’s easy to see how someone gets in even if they exhibit some personality traits that would once have kept them out.

    And Bergdorf? If he deserted, court marshall him when he gets back. If it was PTSD, deal with that and maybe AWOL or whatever is done in a situation like that. And of course dishonorable discharge.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      In a perfect world, Moe, the Armed Forces would only be used for actual defense, as in when the nation is attacked. And in that perfect world, all citizens would feel similarly threatened and similarly challenged to respond to the attack, and people would sign up for military duty voluntarily. But in the real world, as we both know, it’s different. Even in WW II there was resentment, draft evasion and corruption, but government controls on the media and popular opinion suppressed most of that in the media. I get this not from memory but from reading some Wiki history last year. There was widespread cheating on rationing as well.

      What’s my point? If this happened after Pearl Harbor, what’s the chance of fielding conscription for the fields of the next Afghanistan? Not good, I’d say. But, if I knew a way to make it work, and to make ’em like it, I’d be right there with you.

      Speaking of such a perfect world, however, Mollie and I sat down last evening and watched the first half of the Captain America movie (I guess it’s several years old now.) We are finding it great fun (me more than she, I think). How retro, and how pure. The good guys are very good and the bad? How can it get any better than Nazi’s? If you haven’t seen it . . . 🙂


  8. Moe says:

    Also (jeez, shut up Moe!) you know I agree with you that the prez et al handled this as badly as could be. Should have been much lower key. And maybe not him making the announcement. It was putting a match to a predictable fire.

    Anyway, these five Taliban were taken 13 years ago – nearly a generation ago and have no doubt lost their places in the hierarchy. But weren’t they were more political figures? That talk of ‘killing Americans’? If they individually were involved in that, it wasn’t here, it was there, in Afghanistan after we invaded. And they – and we – considered them to be part of the official government at the time. We call them terrorists, but weren’t they more ‘enablers’ of Al Qaeda. (which Pakistan is today on a much larger scale).

    Not speaking up for them! Just asking questions.


    • Jeff Little says:

      Most of them have never been charged with anything.

      If you have netflix, I would recommend adding “The Road to Guantanamo” to your queue. Our standards for putting people in there do not seem to have been very high. If you are saying the prisoners were actually leaders among the Taliban, this is the first I have heard of it. I will admit that I am jaundiced at this point, but my assumption is that they generally fell into the category of “believed combatants”.


      • Moe says:

        Jeff: You’re right about the ones left down there; they mostly haven’t been charged. We don’t want them on US soil because then they’d just walk. But those five that were exchanged were in fact part of the Afghan gov’t in ’01 such as it was and had been in and out of power since ’96. (In those days whoever controlled Kabul WAS the gov’t.) They were overthrown in late ’01.


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