The Seaman’s Exam

Fresh out of 90-day wonder school, I reported to my first duty station, line officer, USS Aeolus (ARC-3). (I always will remember when they passed out these assignments. My company chief told me where I was going, then took a beat “Mr. Canaff, what the hell is an ARC?”) The ship, converted from a Navy cargo ship, layed SOSUS cable to track Soviet nuclear submarines on the North Atlantic. Among the modifications was the complete removal of all gunnery from the ship, to allow for specialized cable laying gear (this becomes important later). I was made the Deck Division officer (Ship’s Bosun), with approximately 40 enlisted men under my command (who knew a lot more about what the ship did for a living than I did).

I was lucky to have excellent senior enlisted people, including a Chief Boatswain’s Mate and a First Class of the same specialty. Evidentally the Navy made sure to staff these ships with the best deck rigging types possible to perform the ship’s mission, oriented as it was toward complicated tasks involved in laying cable.

The remainder of my charges consisted of young seamen with limited experience. These men were almost all “seaman apprentice”, Pay Level E-2. Few, if any, had been promoted to E-3, “seaman”. In my limited experience, E-1’s (Seaman Recruit) were promoted to Seamen Apprentices upon completion of naval boot camp, then sent to their first duty stations. Within a year or so, they usually were promoted to Seaman, E-3. By contrast, my people seemed mired as E-2’s, even 2-3 years later. Why? They all seemed competent enough. What was holding them back? In 1963, when all this took place, monthly E-1 pay was $78 monthly, E-2’s drew $85, and E-3’s about $95.

It seems the problem was the sailors’ inability to pass a Navy-Wide written exam. Many of the exam questions concerned gunnery topics, which were all but impossible to train people about on a ship with no guns! I did do some bureautic research, and found that the “Navy-Wide” exam was merely a suggestion, not a requirement.

Each command could make up its own test, based on the ship’s mission. Ship’s command just assumed the test was a requirement, and nobody had bothered to challenge it.

After I had convinced them, I got with my senior enlisted folks and had them modify the exam to pretty much eliminate the gunnery questions, and substitute stuff most pertinent to laying cable. The test was taken shortly afterward, and most every SA passed and got promoted to Seaman. About $10 more in the monthly pay envelope.

No big deal, but even I, not having an MBA or any experience in management, had learned that a vital function of a supervisor is to look after your people. They will then, in the current idiom, in some manner, have your back.

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