The navy watch business

The cruise on the Wisconsin gave me a crystal clear picture of my career choices in the Navy. It was not pretty. What few decisions I had made were to avoid sorry circumstances, rather than to do something I enjoyed. Maybe that is the way such choices are supposed to be made, but it didn’t seem right at the time. This is the way it happened to me.

realna2Bow View, Battleship USS Wisconsin

One of my regular duties on the Wisconsin was standing watch. On a ship of this size, hundreds are standing watch all the time, 24 hours a day. The best example of a watch was from the old sailing movies. The only guy standing an actual watch in these movies was the little guy who would crawl 100 feet up a rope ladder into the crows nest at the top of the mainmast. Up there he would get out his spyglass and scan the horizon looking for land, or enemy ships, or shoals and reefs, or ladies in bikinis, not necessarily in that order. Whenever something happened, he was sitting in the catbird seat, and would shout down whatever was happening to whoever was listening. His watches were scripted, and always created quite a stir.

What the movies did not show was what he did when nothing exciting was happening, because it didn’t make a very good movie. He was still in the crows nest with his spyglass looking for things that weren’t there. Throughout his watch, he looked, and looked, and looked, and never had anything to shout about. After four hours he would crawl out of the crows nest, and back down the rope ladder. He was hungry, frozen, and exhausted. He didn’t know what to do first, get warm, eat, or sleep. So he got a bowl of gruel and ate it in the rack.

This deals only with the actual watch itself. What is not scripted is that watches occur at all hours of the day or night, on a relentless schedule. You don’t make up the schedule! You check the watch list, which is posted in the duty area, to see when its your turn. To fully experience watches, you really have to lay them end-to-end. You probably have an assigned duty station and explicit duties while there. There is a duty log in which you record everything noteworthy that happens at that duty station during your watch. A watch on the bridge, for instance, will include the captains orders. It specifies that the ship must make a course change at 0300 in the morning.

With your watch from 12 to 4, you have nothing in particular to do for the first three hours. What you actually do is look forward to the course change, the only thing you have to do for four hours. At precisely 3:00 in the morning, you execute the course change. It says come right to course 120 true. As soon as the ship is steady on course 120, your excitement is over. That takes a few minutes. You record At 0300 came right to course 120 true in the log book. At 0315 you are bored out of your gourd, so you make another entry in the log. 0315 steady on course 120 true. Then you have another 45 minutes to spend on watch waiting for something to happen. It never does.

On the bridge at sea in the peacetime Navy, it is customary to steam in a straight line. It is entirely possible to stand watches for several straight days. Every day there are six watches, two of which are yours steaming in a straight line. It is like driving through Kansas on Interstate 70, except the scenery never changes. There are no course changes to enliven your day. So you spend days waiting for something to happen. The example of a watch with a course change is a reasonably exciting example, which otherwise reverts to a standard watch, when nothing happens at all.

In the old days there were sailors standing duty all over the ship. There was the one on the wheel, struggling against the wind and the rain. There were those on the sail crew, fighting to raise, or lower the sails. There were those in the bilges rowing the oars. For the crew on the oars, there was a crew chief with a loudspeaker saying Pull . . . Pull . . . Pull . . . Pull you landlubbers, or you won’t get your daily ration of gruel. Each of these sailors was performing an essential task. It was no different in the modern Navy.

Standing watch was in the same class as watching paint dry. It dried whether I was watching or not. I preferred not watching, particularly at 0300 in the morning. I wanted something to happen, something to do. I needed a project to keep me awake.

One of the key problems with watches was dealing with the consequences. They were numerous. One consequence, as illustrated in the old movies, was the punishment when caught sleeping on watch. From my perspective, any red-blooded American sailor should sleep on watch, as that was the most rational thing to do. The Navy doesn’t agree with this position, and specifies punishment for violators at the captains discretion. In the old days, a favorite punishment was keel-hauling. This required tying the offenders hands and feet with different ropes. Then they would pass one rope under the ship, without saying exactly how they got the rope under the ship. Then they would pull the violator through the water under the ship holding both ends of the rope. The problem here, which may be self-evident, is when the rope pullers are not well coordinated, and end-up pulling on both ends. This is both cruel and unusual if the violator is underwater at the time. On the Wisconsin, it was 150 feet across the beam with 30 feet of draft on each side. That is a total of 210 feet at the end of a rope, all underwater, not counting the barnacles. The best advice was to stay awake while on watch.

A four-hour watch is not really an adequate daily work schedule, so most schedules were four hours on and eight hours off, four more hours on and eight more off. That is two watches a day, one during the day, and another during the night. The full impact of watches was experienced only after enduring such a schedule for several days. It seemed like a form of sickness to actually choose this kind of career as a line of work. I really needed something quite different.


Not all watches were four hour in length. The sailors pictured above are engaged in a Deck Division duty called holystoning. It is a regular duty, or punishment, during eight daylight hours. Because all weather decks on the ship are made of wood, they required constant care. As you may see, seven sailors and one midshipman are in line, each with a stick. The stick is inserted into the shallow hole in the top of each stone. To be sure every board is smoothed by stoning, the eight stand in a straight line working each board simultaneously. It must be performed in perfect unison, like rowing a slave galley, or else the stones break and a brawl ensues. Given the size of the ship, if this is your watch, you can finish the entire ship in several days. Then you may start over again. This is one way to avoid night watches.

I had no problem with working, but watch schedules required working twice a day, day and night, forever. Watches were hours of boredom separated by a few moments actually doing something useful. I discovered, to my amazement, that the people performing these watches were all known as line officers, and could be identified by a small star worn on their uniforms. They should all have large stars for courage and persistence in the face of boredom. Then I learned about the other kinds of officers called staff officers. I decided that whatever staff officers did, that was what I wanted to do. The solution was readily available, and little did I know that I had already made the proper decision for my prospective career in the Navy.

During my freshman year, I switched from engineering to the business school. Running the Navy’s business was much more to my liking, and would get me out of the watch business, a pure form of monkey business.

Shortly after returning to Oregon State for my sophomore year, I conferred with my Navy advisor about changing to the Supply Corp, the Navy’s business division. My first application was deemed frivolous, and was turned down somewhere in the chain of command. I never knew where the chain was broken, but the request probably never left the campus. Oregon State did not have a Supply Corps program, which was available only at selected schools.

I appealed the decision, and in the process called upon some outside help with the decision in Washington. With this help, the initials P.I. (political influence) were stamped in large letters on the outside of my service record. I had heard that most of the Navy folks didn’t pay any attention to P.I., so there was no problem using it, if you had it. Then there were the others who were incensed over outsiders who messed with the Navy’s internal decisions. These other folks had a second acronym they stamped in large letters on the outside of your record. Those initials were P.O., and we all know what that stands for. You don’t want these other folks writing the orders for your next duty station. You could spend the next three years under the North Pole. I knew in advance I was not interested in that part of the Navy.

Voila! The request was approved. I finished my second year at Oregon State. I knew I would miss the girls at the Delta Zeta sorority. I was their houseboy for two years, serving all their needs as they arose. It was a sad affair kissing them all goodbye. I bid farewell to the fraternity brothers, and returned home. The following year I entered the Supply Corps Training Program at the University of Kansas. The watch business was finally over, and I started looking forward to a watch worth shouting about. Or at least, so it might seem!

Comments are closed.