Command Duty Officer
By Captain M. W. Newman ’71, USN (Ret.)
Returning to Pearl Harbor from my first WestPac cruise in U.S.S. GOLDSBOROGH (DDG20) the summer of 1972, we settled into a pleasant in- port routine. The Chief of Naval Operations had decreed that all ships would have a minimum of five in-port duty sections. After we finished our post-deployment leave and upkeep period, we managed to stretch ourselves into five sections. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the Section Five Supper Club. We gave ourselves that name because the Supply Officer, himself, was our duty Supply Department representative; and he ensured we ate exceptionally well on our duty nights. Wild Bill Kreaser, the Weapons Officer, was our Command Duty Officer (CDO) and Lt. Dennis Daley, newly reported aboard, was the duty Weapons Officer. Ensign Rick Fruechtenicht, my roommate and the Comm Officer, was Duty Ops. I was duty Engineer. With three lieutenants and two ensigns, we were a little heavy; but we were also the best section.
Section 5 Supper Club enjoyed an active social life. On weekends, we could invite guests to join us for the evening meal in the wardroom. Only Kreaser and the Supp-O were married and we saw quite a bit of their wives and children. Occasionally, we bachelors would bring in a guest, normally a young lovely we had met on the beach and wanted to impress without spending the kind of money we would have had to spend in Waikiki. Whoever had a guest got to prescribe the uniform for evening meal. The married guys always picked khakis, but the bachelors invariably picked tropical whites.
Our Captain had been selected for promotion to Commander just before we came home from cruise. He and his wife planned a Wetting Down party at their quarters for the Saturday night before our duty day the following Sunday.
Everyone was in attendance at the Wetting Down, and a grand time was being had by all. Then Lt. Kreaser announced that he was ill and going to the Naval Hospital. That left the Supper Club without a leader. The Executive Officer and the Senior Watch Officer, who was the Operations Officer and a Lieutenant Commander, went into a corner to resolve this dilemma. Normally, you would expect the S.W.O. to throw himself into the breach and take the duty for Wild Bill. Maybe it was the time of night. Maybe it was the extent of wetting down that had been accomplished. For what ever reason, the XO and the S.W.O. decided to “let Newman do it.” They ran it past the Captain (who was seriously wetted down), and he concurred. What could possibly happen in Pearl Harbor on a Sunday? They then rounded me up and told me the good news. They also told me to go home and start sobering up for my awesome responsibilities in the morning.
Why me? I was a Fleet Ensign to be sure, but an Ensign nevertheless. I got tapped because I was the only other officer in the Supper Club who was a qualified Officer of the Deck (Underway). This ostensibly meant that I could take the ship to sea in an emergency (not very likely with only one fifth of the crew on board). The Supp-O was a staff officer and not qualified. Lt. Daley was a former PBR skipper in Viet Nam and a certified hero; but this was his first gray ship, and he had no underway qualifications. So I was it.
At 07:30, the Supper Club, minus Wild Bill, took over the ship. There were lots of comments about Ensign Newman getting a “battlefield” promotion to C.D.O. What it really meant was that I got to sit at the head of the table in the Wardroom, but the Lieutenants picked the movies to watch. It was a beautiful day in Pearl. Once we got past morning colors at 08:00 and no Japanese air planes appeared in the sky, I began to relax a little. At 08:30, I received a call from the XO, just checking on things. At 09:00, the Captain called, clearly concerned about his judgment the night before. From then on, all day long, one or the other called me every half hour to make sure I hadn’t done something outrageous like steaming the ship over to Maui. I could hardly leave the Wardroom for answering the phone!
Finally, just before ten at night, the Captain made his last call and told me he was going to bed. I was ready to stand down myself when suddenly an emergency announcement was made over the ship’s 1MC (public address system). The Base C.D.O. had driven down the pier alerting each ship’s quarterdeck watch that there was a fire on the base and he needed assistance. Our quarterdeck took action immediately and passed the following word:
FIRE IN THE WAVE BARRACKS! FIRE IN THE WAVE BARRACKS!
AWAY THE RESCUE AND ASSISTANCE DETAIL!!
I took off at a dead run down the starboard weather deck, trying to get to the quarterdeck and secure the brow before I lost my entire duty section. Petty Officer Sundby, the Duty Damage Controlman, got there first and was desperately fighting to hold back the flood of sailors rushing to render aid to the WAVES. The Rescue and Assistance Detail was a designated group of section personnel trained and equipped to go off to another ship or shore station to help with fires or flooding. On a good day, the entire detail was no more than eight men. This Sunday night, however, every sailor onboard grabbed whatever piece of equipment he could find that looked like firefighting gear (even life rings) and designated himself a first-responder.
When Petty Office Sundby and I finally got control of the quarterdeck, we estimated that we had no more than half of our section left on board. Sundby was beside himself with rage over the loss of so much equipment. I was beside myself with anxiety over how I was going to explain this to the Captain and XO. The WAVE Barracks was a WW II-era structure commonly referred to as a Splinter Barracks. It was just up the hill from our berth on Bravo Pier, and we could clearly see the fire burning. I could almost see my sailors comforting the now-homeless females watching the flames from across the street in various stages of undress because of their emergency evacuation. We later heard that someone even produced marshmallows for the event. Well past midnight, my duty section began to straggle back aboard, all with big grins on their faces but none with Sundby’s damage control equipage.
My first command and I had lost all control. I expected to be court-marshaled. I was on the quarterdeck before six a.m. to meet the XO and make a full confession. Just as I saw his car approaching his parking space, the duty radioman handed me a priority message from Commander, Naval Base, Pearl Harbor. As I read it, the weight of the world left my shoulders. The sun broke through the clouds. Birds began to sweetly sing. The Base Commander lavished praise on all the ships that responded so gallantly to the fire at the WAVE Barracks, even though the structure was a total loss. GOLDSBOROUGH was prominently listed among the heroes. The very best part of the message was the last line which authorized all ships to replenish their damage control lockers from the base supply center at NO charge. Petty Officer Sundby had a blank check and he used it.