The Wonder and Power of the Brief Navy Message

By Craig Johnson 

Our Shipmate on our Facebook Group: Sea StoriesAndre’ Moog reminded me of the following story. I would like to start by thanking him!

Tomahawk Missle

Tomahawk Missle (Photo credit: alexmuse)

It was 1983, and President Ronald Reagan was pressuring the Air Force and Navy Joint Cruise Missiles Project 3 (JCM3) into getting the nuclear version of the TOMAHAWK Cruise Missile operational prior to his next Disarmament talks with the Russians.

One of the two Submarine Tenders in San Diego, California had been prepped for issuing the first submarine launched nuclear TOMAHAWK in the Pacific.  The crew had been sent to Nuclear Weapons Training Group Pacific located in San Diego.  All of the equipment and certifications needed had come through and they were prepping the first weapon for issue.

The W-3 Division Officer had just finished his class at the Training Group was a young Ensign. He was excited about being the first ship in the Pacific Fleet to issue a nuclear TOMAHAWK, and thrilled to have been granted the responsibility of overseeing the turnover.

The Ensign was so excited that he took upon himself alone, the responsibility of getting the duty section together to start working on the missile.  None of the senior Petty Officers in the Division, nor the Leading Chief, who were not aboard at the time, were aware of what was happening.

Unbeknown to anyone else onboard, a Third Class Petty Officer had accidentally dropped the Procedures Manual down a ladder-well.  The book was in a three ring binder and he just stuffed the pages back in the binder and failed to verify that they were in the right order.

They had been working a little over an hour when they finished a step and turned the page to find nothing there that made any sense.  No one noticed that the pages were out of order.  The Ensign was the Duty Officer, and had the authority to release messages. He sent one up the chain of command, notifying it of the problem, and requesting instructions.

I was stationed at JCM3 in Washington, DC.  My job involved the development of all support equipment, manuals, training, and implementation into the fleet units.  Our office was in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia which is right next to Reagan National Airport.

On this night I was the Officer on Call if any questions arose from any Command in the Fleet.  This just meant that the JCM3 Duty Officer had to have the phone number at whatever location I was at.  This way I could be in different locations in the performance of my duties.  Sometimes I would be on travel to a fleet unit, contractor, or on this day, at home in Herndon, Virginia.

As all sailors know, sudden changes in environment such as sounds will wake us up.  This comes from being onboard ship when any change could mean a life or death emergency.

I was sound asleep in my bed when at 0300. The phone rang.  I answered the phone and the voice at the other end asked if I was Lieutenant Johnson from the Cruise Missiles Office.  I answered in the affirmative.  He informed me that I had to come into the office immediately. I had to respond to an emergency flash action message. This type of message goes to God and everyone else on down.

The Whitehouse was waiting for my response.  Hendon is about 45 to 60 minutes from JCM3.  I managed to get to the office at approximately 0400.

The radioman was there waiting with the message.  This message  –which had been sent to every living person in the Navy Command Structure, and possibly even some of the dead ones– had three pages of addresses. It only had one paragraph as the text of the message. It said that they were prepping a TOMAHAWK missile and had got to a certain step in the manual and needed to know what they were supposed to do next.

I took my copy of the book off of the shelf and opened it up to that step so I could develop a response.

The Radioman had the daft message addressed to all the addressees from the original message ready to go, he just need the body of text along with my approval to transmit.

This is the entire body of text in my response; “Turn the page!”

The Command that sent the original message had a Captain as a Commanding Officer who had an Ensign release an Emergency Action Message to the World saying they did not know what to do next.

The Commander of JCM3 was a Two Star Admiral who had a Lieutenant responding to the Ensign with another Emergency Action Message.

When the Commander of JCM3 came in the office I was there to meet him.  He read both messages and looked at me, smiled and then asked me if I was aware of what I had just done. I responded to my high-ranking Superior in the affirmative.

My message was the equivalent of a Two Star Admiral reprimanding a Captain publicly to the entire Navy chain of Command from the White House Down.

Discussion Points:

1) How do you think that Ensign’s day went after his Captain got the morning navy message traffic?

2) What do you think that proud Ensign’s chances were of ever seeing  Lieutenant Junior Grade bars on his collars?

3) Can you see the Wonder and Power of the brief Navy Message as an obstacle to advancement?

The Wonder and Power of the Brief Navy Message was, and is, that he was the only Ensign I personally ever met that was never promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade.

SWIM CALL FINISHED 2014-03-04_0810

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