Speech: Capt. Gordan E. Van Hook

In 1988, Lt. Gordan E. Van Hook was chief engineer of the USS Samuel B. Roberts. A plankowner, or original member of the crew, Van Hook was responsible for training the engineering department aboard the frigate. An integral part of the damage control effort that saved the Roberts after it hit a mine, he went on to attain the rank of captain and to command Destroyer Squadron 23, the “Little Beavers” of WWII fame.

On August 17, 2006, Capt. Van Hook spoke at the Surface Navy Association’s West Coast Symposium 2006 at Naval Base San Diego:

Vice Adm. Nyquist, Vice Adm. Etnyre, Rear Adm. Buzby, Commodores, Captains, Fellow Surface Warriors, and friends of Surface Warfare:

I’m pleased and deeply honored to be invited to speak to you today about Leadership and Survival. Like most professional surface warriors, they’re two topics very close to my heart. I want to thank Bill Erickson and the Surface Navy Association for inviting me. I know that Paul Rinn, my CO in the SAMMY B, regrets being unable to attend, but I’ll do my best to talk about my experiences on that great ship and some of the enduring lessons that I think you’ll be able to apply to your jobs on the waterfront and hopefully, beyond.

Needless to say, the experience of the mining did much to shape my career and my life in ways that were sometimes quite obvious, and other times quite subtle. At the time of the action, and in its immediate aftermath, I felt many different emotions. It was a life altering experience, and I tried hard to approach it rationally and to keep it in perspective. It was obvious that we, as a crew, had performed very, very well. We had done more than just survive; we saved our ship to fight another day. In the end, as American fighting men and women, that’s what it’s really all about when you take a hit. But why did we do more than survive? What made us able to pull it together at the right time in the right place? Well, as I thought about it in the aftermath, it was clear there were actually many factors. There were the basics of doctrine, organization, training, professional education, manning, and equipment. As a Navy, then and now, we are second to none in this basic “blocking and tackling” of putting a modern navy to sea. But along with the basics of being properly trained and equipped, there was definitely something different about the “SAMMY B”… there was a spirit in that crew: a deep down sense that we were special, that nothing could beat us, that we really were the best at what we did. Where did that spirit come from? Were we some unique combination of brains, talent and skill that just happened to aggregate at that point in space and time by luck or intelligent design? As professionals, you all know the real answer. It was all about leadership.

I’m not going to tell you all the entire detailed story of the SAMMY B and the mining and its aftermath. You have Brad Peniston here today, and I want to publicly thank and commend Brad on the outstanding job he has done in telling the third SAMMY B’s story in his great book “No Higher Honor”. It is exceptionally accurate and does a great job in capturing many of the elements that gave the ship its spirit. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it to you. It’s a wonderful story of a great ship that through superb leadership, survives a devastating blow without the loss of a single life. I’ll leave the details to the book, and I will try to do my best to offer my perspectives on that key ingredient of leadership, and the role it played in that particular ship.

As I said, there were many factors that went into making the third SAMMY B a successful ship. We were blessed with a true DC zealot in our commissioning DCA, Lt. Eric Sorensen. But where did this DC zealot come from? Was he born from a Perijet eductor, or a P-250 pump? No, as Brad accurately portrays in the book, Eric had no initial interest in damage control. His strength came from his ability to focus, and I mean focus, bore sight his energy and enthusiasm to do the very best at whatever job he was given. Those of you leading at sea know very well how valuable a quality that is on a warship. However, you also know well how such a quality can have a down side. Eric was not universally loved on the ship. He was not a charismatic leader. When he bore-sighted on something like damage control training, it could be to the exclusion of all else. He was a downright pain in the ass! He was a pain in the ass to everyone, especially me as the chief engineer and damage control officer! So how did Eric end up as DCA on the SAMMY B? Well, go figure – Eric’s first commanding officer recognized his qualities, despite his drawbacks, and recommended him to Paul Rinn. Paul Rinn took stock of these qualities and gave him the toughest Divo job aboard ship: DCA. Again, as Brad so accurately depicts, Paul Rinn was no damage control guru. He had no particular interest in it other than he knew that it would be a crucial and essential building block for the ship’s initial success and its ultimate ability to fight and survive in combat. I didn’t recognize it implicitly at the time in Paul Rinn, but I later realized he was demonstrating one of the essential fundamentals of leadership: taking stock of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and making the most of those strengths while using the team to minimize the weakness. The ability to clearly recognize those strengths, take stock of them and put them to use for the team is an essential leadership quality and certainly a key to survival. By the way, it won’t surprise some of you elders in the audience, that that first CO to recognize those strengths in Eric on his first ship was none other than VADM Hank Giffen, a great surface warfare leader in his own right.

The captain had a great ability to get the most out of each and every member of the crew. That’s certainly a crucial element of leadership, but obviously there was more to building that spirit that made the ship. In its simple way, Webster’s tells us that to lead is to go ahead so as to show the way. Well, Paul Rinn recognized early that to show the way ahead, history would prove an invaluable ally. As the old saying goes, you can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. In this case, SAMMY B was fortunate to have a name so rich in history for spirit and heroism. For those of you that have read the work of our other author with us today, Jim Hornfischer’s “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors”, you know well of the remarkable story of raw guts and fighting spirit that the original SAMMY B showed as she fought Japanese cruisers and battleships off Samar Island at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, ultimately sinking and leaving her survivors to sharks and exposure for days before their rescue. Paul Rinn knew the story well and he did his best to immerse the crew in it before and after commissioning. He had many of the original survivors as a part of the commissioning ceremony and more importantly, he would bring them to sea with us at every opportunity. I can remember them sitting on the mess decks and telling their stories for hours to the crew. This had an immense impact on our crew. They not only sucked up every bit of wisdom they could from these old guys, but more importantly they took the flame of a spirit that was passed to them, a sense that they were a part of something much bigger, more important than themselves. They were a part of a fighting legacy, an indomitable history of courage and success. I only wish we’d had Jim’s great book to really illustrate it, but those old guys on the mess decks did a pretty good job on their own. I would enjoin each of you to look back as much as forward and attempt to draw on the lessons of history that can guide you and inspire your crew.

As I’ve reflected on the success of the third SAMMY B, I’ve often thought that we also had a lot of luck on our side. As Bath Iron Works was finishing the ship’s construction prior to commissioning, the yard went on strike. However, despite the virtual halt to all work on the ship, the commissioning crew continued to arrive. Usually, an FFG under construction received her crew in increments that arrived all the way up until commissioning. This could be nerve-wracking as the earlier arrivals and core leadership had very little time to train and integrate the new arrivals, many of whom were very green, fresh out of boot camp or A School. In this case, the delay of the strike was a boon to the leadership. New crew members continued to arrive on the original time schedule and we made the most of it. Contractually, we were unable to work on the ship, but we sure could train. Not only did we roam our entire ship, we roamed throughout the others in various states of construction, conducting DC scavenger hunts and rallies and competitions to test each other’s knowledge of not just damage control, but the entire layout of the ship. This created a remarkable sense of competition and enthusiasm in the crew. Everyone wanted to show their expertise and try to stump their buddies on facts and layouts that seemed trivial to some, but proved invaluable when we really needed it. This competition and enthusiasm continued after commissioning and work-ups with more scavenger hunts and blind-folded egress drills, as well as the normal GQ’s and fire drills. The crew genuinely seemed to enjoy these, no matter how onerous they got, and I’ve already told you that the DCA did not have a lovable personality. You see, each sailor really loved knowing his ship and knowing his job. We just had to supply the data, and they ate it up! Every crewmember carried two small books, one in each back pocket. The “little red book”, the Main Space Fire Doctrine was in his left pocket, and the “little blue book,” containing general DC info and ship’s plans, was in his right pocket. Armed with the reference material close at hand, they continued to amaze all inspectors and trainers. I’m not saying they were perfect angels, but I will say that they taught me that we rarely tap the true potential of our people, and when we do come close it’s more than we could ever expect. By the time they got to GITMO, they couldn’t wait to take on ATG and show them what they knew. Their favorite was the Mass Conflagration Drill when all the canned drills no longer mattered and you had to rely on your innate knowledge of the ship to improvise. This is when the training really showed.

So what really happened with the strike? Was it just the luck of opportune timing and some much needed breathing room to train? Or was it something bigger than that? Somehow, with some well applied skill and enthusiasm in the leaders themselves, we had tapped into a gold mine, that vein of unlimited potential that lies within the heart of the American Bluejacket. Upon further reflection, I realized that while luck helps, it takes much more to achieve success with a crew or any team. If as a leader, you can find a way to unleash the enthusiasm and natural desire to excel that lies within each and every sailor, than you’ll achieve success no matter how your luck turns out.

As you can probably see by now, the Captain, the wardroom and CPO Mess laid the groundwork early for reacting to the events of 14 April 1988. While the spirit and enthusiasm of the crew were essential to survival, make no doubt about it, when the blast comes and the lights go out, when the black smoke is billowing and the water’s rising, you better have those basic skills and that fundamental knowledge, too. Several key decisions were made by leadership that day that were critical, and I’d like to review them. The Captain manned battle stations immediately upon sighting the mines, but he did it without sounding GQ. Sound crazy? Let me tell you, when the CO comes on the 1MC and calmly and deliberately tells you the situation and tells you that he wants you at your battle stations quickly and quietly, with minimal confusion, it has an immense effect. Rather than blindly sounding the claxon, he knew there was a potential for acoustic mines and he wanted to minimize confusion while maximizing our readiness. We honestly had not drilled for being in the middle of a mine field, but the CO understood when procedures needed to be modified, and he did so to great effect. Consequently, our DC teams manned quietly and seriously, and knew that this was the real deal. They were on the balls of their feet and ready for anything. Another key decision was made by then Chief Walker, who quietly advised all in the engineering spaces, via the 2JV, “why don’t you guys all get up on the upper levels until we sort this out”. Sounds like a “no-brainer”, huh? Well, incredibly that had never come up in our training and the Chief improvised and most assuredly saved a half-dozen lives with that order. Ask then GSM3 Burbine if he had wanted to be sitting down on that OD box between the engines which ultimately ended up in the overhead. There were in fact, many snap decisions made throughout the six hours of flooding and fires that followed the blast. Some of them were made by senior leaders, but many were made by very junior sailors, drawing on their training and knowledge of the ship. Fireman Tilley knew he had to get an SSDG on line and he knew he’d have to climb on its big metal back in the dark with a battle lantern and hit “the suicide switch” to give us our lights, firefighting water and crucial eductors. Chief Ford, a navy cook, knew that in AMR 2, standard patches were not going to fit the irregular cracks in the after bulkhead, but shirts and mattresses would buy him the time he needed. Boatswain’s Mate Senior Chief Frost knew that heavy weather lifelines would be handy for stitching a gaping crack across the deckhouse. And the Captain listened to his young chief engineer, Lt. Van Hook, when he insisted on fighting the engine room fire through the engine removal hatches on the O-2 level.

You never know who’s going to come through for you when the time comes. The sharp eyes that spotted the mines were those of a young seaman, Bobby Gibson, who had spent hours and hours, watch after watch in the bow of that ship, looking through the hot haze of the Gulf. Did he get bored at times? I’m sure he did, but he kept at it because someone made it clear to him, probably a BM3, that he had a job to do and it was important. I remember watching a young seaman apprentice horsing a P-250 pump with a couple of shipmates, reminding a second class how to get a hose connected properly. That second class knew when it was time to listen to the seaman apprentice. I remember others not being there too, ones you thought you could count on, freezing up when you needed them. The point is, you’ve got to spread the knowledge wide and as deep as you can because you’ll never know who’s going to be the man or woman on the scene to save your life and save your ship.

As good as I thought we were, there were still those that said “that will probably never happen to us”, even when in a combat zone. Talking to shipmates and others that have faced similar challenges, this is not an unusual human self defense mechanism. As leaders we have to recognize this challenge and force ourselves and our crews to be ready when the time comes. I remember Paul Rinn coming on the 1MC the night before the mining, and reminding s that we needed to be vigilant for mines. There had been no special warnings, he just was thinking ahead of bad things that could happen. Unfortunately, fires and floods are not limited to ships in combat. They can come at any time. Ask yourself if you’ll really be ready when the time comes. Don’t wait for ATG to tell you if you’re ready. In your heart you know if you are, or if you aren’t.

At this point, I should probably say something about leadership and physical courage. It’s very popular to focus on physical courage in times of crisis. There’s the heroic appeal to facing extreme personal danger for your shipmates and country, sacrifice of self for the greater good. As leaders, I believe measured and rational physical courage under fire or extreme stress is indeed an inherent responsibility and key to unit survival. However, as John McCain has so eloquently written in his book “Why Courage Matters”, it is not necessarily something we are born with, but rather something we must practice every day to be ready when the time comes. I’m not talking about walking through a live target range to be ready for combat, but there’s no doubt that training and knowing our business to the point that it goes in auto when we’re under stress is a key element to maintaining the calmness and coolness that our subordinates will expect from us in dire situations. Paul Rinn had this down to a tee, and his calm demeanor did much to reassure the crew throughout that long night. That calm and cool demeanor became the entire ship’s hallmark.

What really made the SAMMY B in 1988 a survivable ship? No doubt, the Perry-class FFG turned out to be an exceptionally well-designed and well-built ship. We were blessed with a great captain in Paul Rinn. His personality and natural leadership infused the crew with pride and enthusiasm. The wardroom was good, but about fleet average. It was not necessarily an exceptional chief’s mess, but there were some key leaders that built a real sense of responsibility and camaraderie, and formed the key linkage to the crew. Was it all the training? Was it a fluke of nature — the “lucky draw” of a great group of sailors and a bull-headed DCA? I submit to all of you that it was more than that. It was that inner fire and determination that is really there for every leader to find. Nothing can substitute for that will, enthusiasm, and motivation that lies waiting, sometimes dormant, to be tapped in every bluejacket. As leaders, if we take the time to plan, and if we view quality training as an honest concern for their welfare, there is no limit to that potential. I remain convinced that if we as leaders give our people the resources, the time, and the support up front then they’ll more than do their part when the time comes. It’s up to each of us to get out front and show the way ahead!

Thank you.

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