The paper tiger

Except for one emergency trip to Viet Nam, the Gardiners Bay spent over two months as the Station Ship Hong Kong monitoring Victoria Harbor. Late in the tour, the captain’s relief arrived in Hong Kong. Preparations were made for the change of command aboard ship, an event to occur on the following Saturday morning precisely at noon. At that moment, responsibility for operation of the ship passed from the old captain to the new captain, with no buck passing in between. The ship’s deck log documents that moment, and the new commanding officer is in charge of everything from that point forward.

All preparations for the relieving ceremony were progressing nicely. The shipboard records and reports were all in order. Such a major event aboard ship can’t be adequately celebrated without a party. Unlike the British, US Navy ships forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages while aboard. These rules then change dramatically once the crew is ashore. In the best Navy tradition, it follows that the party would have to be held ashore. And so it was. The party plans were set for Friday evening just before the Saturday relieving ceremony. I had no idea that I was to become an integral part of the plans.

On Friday around 1700, I was advised that I should get ready to relieve the officer of the day (OD) on the quarterdeck within an hour. This was a little strange, as I was not on any roster for OD duty, and had never served in that regular capacity aboard ship before. I reviewed this circumstance carefully from my perspective, the only perspective available to me.

By rank, I was not quite as low as the commissioned warrant officer, who had 25 years of credible Navy experience, an old salt by any measure. By contrast, I was a boot ensign, a staff supply officer of all things, and was scarcely qualified to walk the decks while underway. For the powers aboard ship to turn responsibility for the ship over to me was an incredible stretch. All I could think was its got to be one hell of a party.

Then on the other hand I saw no particular problem with it, as we were securely anchored in port. As the junior officer in the day’s duty section, it made some sense. I had worked one deck watch as a midshipman on the battleship Missouri two years earlier, and I would have an experienced chief petty officer available on board. There were few actual preparations for me to make. About 1800, I relieved the OD, and logged myself in as the OD, my maiden voyage. A navy ship’s deck log is a daily chronology of certain events for administrative and legal purposes, the captain’s official record of what’s happening aboard ship. I was not sure what events were appropriate to record, but believed that covering my own tail (CYA) might be legally appropriate under the circumstances.

Within a half hour, the officers began leaving the ship for the relieving party ashore. An hour later, the last officer who was qualified to get the ship underway walked down the gangway to the captain’s gig, and was shuttled ashore. With his departure, I recorded in the deck log that the last officer qualified to get the ship underway departed from the ship. I recorded the exact time of his departure. Around 2330, about four hours later, the first officer qualified to get the ship underway returned to the ship. I duly recorded this event in the ships log with the exact time of his return. From my perspective, it was no big deal, as it was strictly a means to cover my legal tail in the event of some unexpected emergency, for which I might not be qualified by either training or experience. As soon as the earlier OD returned to the ship, he relieved me, and I hit the sack.

When Saturday morning arrived, the relieving ceremony at noon was not far off. Around 1000 in the morning, Commander Mix pulled me aside and said something like Bob, we have a problem with the deck log. I explained that I was simply covering my legal a– for whatever contingencies might have occurred. I understood him to ask that I remove the entries from the log, and everything would be fine. I saw no problem with the entries, as they were factual, strictly accurate, and covered me legally. In all probability, he responded that the entries were simply not acceptable as they were, and suggested that we both visit the executive officer, – to mediate the dispute.

The next stop was with the executive officer in his cabin. I was not exactly sure how the Exec. would mediate, but he performed as he usually did. He considered the circumstances, examined the entries carefully, mumbled to himself an assortment of utterances, many of which were unintelligible, and in the final analysis came down squarely on both sides of the issue. Then he likely mumbled something about discussing it with the captain. As a mediator, the Executive Officer provided no resolution acceptable to Commander Mix, so we left.

It was at about this point that I had a vision of the logbook, elevated to a position of such prominence that it was no longer puzzling. It had turned into the Holy Grail, and was about to be enshrined through the ceremony, which was to follow. As the centerpiece of the relieving ceremony, it had been bronzed and wrapped in red, white, and blue ribbons. It was open to the page I had defaced with my entries, as it was handed from one captain to the next, thereby embarrassing both. Immediately thereafter, I had a second vision in which I saw my body swinging from the mainmast in full dress blue uniform, with a sign attached: No CYA on my watch. It was signed E.C. Asman, Captain, USN, Commanding Officer, Gardiners Bay (AVP-39). Suddenly it occurred to me that, in the vernacular of the sailors, I had seriously pissed-off the wrong people.

In the discussion that ensued, I was offered an option to visit with the captain, or deal with the unacceptable entries. I had no interest in seeing the captain, and stated that I would be happy to draw a line through the entries and initial the corrections in the log. This option was accepted. A single line was ruled through each of the two entries, and I initialed both. So long as they remained legible, I had no problem with this modification. To this day, I have no idea who blew the whistle on my log entries. It might have been Commander Mix, or the OD who I relieved, or the old captain who was leaving. With confidence, I can say it was certainly not the executive officer.

The relieving ceremony was held as scheduled, the new CO took charge of the Gardiners Bay, with all its many fine folks, – who had thrown one heck of a party.

Through the years to that time, I had heard many stories about the paper tiger, which puts up a mighty fight until it comes time for serious combat. This was precisely my situation. In the words of the senior officers on the Station Ship, all of whom were fliers, I caught fire, and went down in flames. To my distress on that day, I was the paper tiger.

After reading the above narrative, Commander Mix sent the following personal correspondence 22 November, 2001:

“Just read the Paper Tiger. As you knew, my motivation was to keep you in the Navy, because you were a keeper. When I was skipper of the VP-19, I got away with a similar stunt. An order came from the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics that to get a spare part, we had to first turn the old part in. I sent my mechanics to the bone yard and “rescued” the spare parts I needed in advance, and turned them in for on hand supplies. One room was set up with parts bins all labeled. During administrative inspection, the admiral came through and knew what I had done. When one of his officers complained, he said ‘Orders are for compliance by idiots, but guidance of reasonable men’. Happy Thanksgiving, Art Mix”

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