Two navies separated by a gulf of wisdom

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The young midshipmen listened to the two old salts with the rapt attention of children gathered around their grandfather. It was cold on the Severn River. Snowflakes fell on the gray-hulled yard patrol boat as it plowed the calm waters.

Mike Lombardo, the blue-jacketed quartermaster, was telling first-year mids Patrick Cashin and Scott Lord about a hair-raising trip he took through the Suez Canal many years ago.

“Oh, God, Suez is rough,” he said. The channel was so narrow, “Evel Knievel could jump it.”

Lombardo described how the nonchalant Egyptian pilot they took aboard their ship to guide them looked as if he would run the ship aground.

But as Lombardo told it, the unflappable Egyptian, sitting in a chair and drinking coffee, simply said: “We’re good, come left.” And the ship safely slipped through the canal.

“It all comes down to the pilot,” noted the chief boatswain’s mate, Ralph Romano, who wore a khaki cap and smoked a cigarette between sips of coffee from a tin cup.

Lombardo and Romano have an interest in passing on their wisdom. In four years, when Cashin and Lord are expected to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and become ensigns, they will be responsible for the lives of older sailors.

While 4,000 midshipmen are groomed on one side of the Severn to become the Navy and Marine Corps’ next generation of commanders, the 600 enlisted sailors and Marines on the other side, at Naval Station Annapolis, keep the U.S. Naval Academy going.

They operate the firing ranges; maintain the patrol boats the mids use to learn how to steer a ship; and keep the computers and telephones working. The sailors and Marines raise the American flag in the morning and lower it at night. They stand guard over the crypt of John Paul Jones, founder of the Navy, and a few of them get to teach future captains and admirals their first lessons in leadership.

The river is the border separating the two navies: the officers’ world of brilliant white uniforms, gleaming swords and the promise of old-fashioned military glory, and the realm of the sailors in blue coveralls or beat-up work jackets, who keep a ship’s engines running, load the torpedoes and fuel the jet fighters. Although the highest-ranking enlisted sailor commands a great deal of respect, he is still outranked by the most junior ensign.

The separation of officers and enlisted goes back long into history, when the common wisdom was that some, most often the rich, were born to lead, and the rest were meant to follow. Today, the barrier is much more porous. Promising young enlisted sailors can apply for admission to the academy, and some sailors can attend officers’ candidate schools or college ROTC programs. But the distinction is still there.

Nowhere in the Navy is this relationship more delicate than at the Naval Academy. Each of the 30 companies into which the Brigade of Midshipmen is divided has an experienced enlisted sailor or Marine to show the mids the ropes.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Kob has been in the Marines for 20 years, and, with part of an ear missing from a bar fight, has an intimidating look.

He comes to the academy every morning at 5 and talks to the midshipmen before their morning formation if they need it. He also makes sure they aren’t skirting regulations, and ensures that the mids in charge of their classmates take care to enforce the rigid rules of conduct. Kob commands instant, if grudging, respect from the midshipmen, some of whom have been on the business end of one of his tongue-lashings.

“I don’t collect popularity pay,” Kob said in an interview. He summed up the ultimate officer’s responsibility crisply: “You have to be able to call somebody and say, ‘Hey, your son’s dead because of a decision I made.’ “

On YP 681, the 172-ton yard patrol boat on which Romano and Lombardo were watching a group of midshipmen, the issues were not quite life-and-death. Before taking them out on the river, the two enlisted sailors showed a group of plebes how to run the ship. Its starboard hull – like all the other hulls in the yard patrol fleet – bore a long, dark smudge across its gray bow showing where the inexperienced plebes had scraped the dock while mooring.

“My boat was looking good, until they got me out on the water,” joked Romano, a 21-year Navy veteran. “I guess it’s Navy’s driver’s ed.” Sometimes their mistakes are dangerous at the time and laughable later, like the day a mid watching over the engine didn’t say anything when it started spraying oil, only reporting in a panic when the engine caught fire.

Romano still held respect for the midshipmen, though. “Anyone can drive a ship or a boat – it’s knowing where to take it,” he said, a responsibility he is happy to leave to these future captains.

“My job is about 40 percent hands-on training and 60 percent good sea stories,” he said.

Caleb Humberd, a third-year midshipman, was nominally in charge as Romano looked on. “I am the commanding officer,” Humberd said. “Midshipman commanding officer,” he corrected. He was in a state of nervous excitement – it was one of his first times in charge of a ship, even if it was only for two hours.

“It’s nerve-racking, actually,” he said of the responsibilities of command. It won’t be any easier when he goes to the fleet and has charge of the enlisted crew.

“These guys have 20 years of experience, and they will call me ‘sir’. … It’s kind of intimidating,” he said.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman announces his retirement after 31 years of service at the Everett City Council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett police chief to retire at the end of October

Chief Dan Templeman announced his retirement at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. He has been chief for nine years.

Boeing employees watch the KC-46 Pegasus delivery event  from the air stairs at Boeing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Boeing’s iconic Everett factory tour to resume in October

After a three-year hiatus, tours of the Boeing Company’s enormous jet assembly plant are back at Paine Field.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Teen boy identified in fatal shooting at Everett bus stop

Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15, was shot at a Hardeson Road bus stop earlier this month. Police arrested two suspects.

Mike Bredstrand, who is trying to get back his job with Lake Stevens Public Works, stands in front of the department’s building on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Bredstrand believes his firing in July was an unwarranted act of revenge by the city. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lake Stevens worker was fired after getting court order against boss

The city has reportedly spent nearly $60,000 on attorney and arbitration fees related to Mike Bredstrand, who wants his job back.

Chap Grubb, founder and CEO of second-hand outdoor gear store Rerouted, stands inside his new storefront on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Gold Bar, Washington. Rerouted began as an entirely online shop that connected buyers and sellers of used gear.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Used outdoor gear shop Rerouted finds a niche in Gold Bar

Seeking to keep good outdoor gear out of landfills, an online reselling business has put down roots in Gold Bar.

Naval Station Everett. (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Everett man sentenced to 6 years for cyberstalking ex-wife

Christopher Crawford, 42, was found guilty of sending intimate photos of his ex-wife to adult websites and to colleagues in the Navy.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers speaks to the crowd during an opening ceremony at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County executive pitches $1.66B budget

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers announced his proposed budget Tuesday afternoon. Public comment is slated to begin Oct. 10.

Lars Kundu wipes away tears during his sentencing Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
5 years after fatal hit and run, Lake Stevens man sentenced to prison

Lars Kundu, 28, pleaded guilty in May for the 2018 death of Chad Keeler. He was handed more than 6 years in prison Thursday.

Jamel Alexander, center, listens as a Snohomish County jury records their verdict of guilty, in the murder of Shawna Brune, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 in Everett, Washington.  Alexander was convicted in the first degree murder of Brune. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Appeals court orders new trial in Everett woman’s stomping death

Appellate judges ruled that additional evidence should have been admitted in Jamel Alexander’s trial for the murder of Shawna Brune.

Most Read