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.