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.