One significant upside to this deployment of ORISKANY was our commanding officer, Captain Bartholomew J. Connolly III of Brookline, Mass. He was one of the finest officers I ever encountered in the Navy, a real leader and just a first-class human being. He had the rugged features and stern countenance of a no-nonsense taskmaster. He was not a softy by any means, he expected and required everyone’s best effort, but he was no martinet. Captain Bart Connolly was a significant reason why ORISKANY performed exceptionally well with so few disciplinary problems. The crew didn’t fear him. They respected him and didn’t want to let him down.
My first general quarters station on ORISKANY was in Damage Control Central (DCC) where I was the talker on the sound-powered JA phone circuit. This was the Captain’s command circuit, linking the navigation bridge with other vital control points around the ship — Flight Ops, Fire Control, Engineering, Secondary Conn (from where the Executive Officer would take control of the ship if the bridge was hit and the Captain was killed or incapacitated) and so on. I was one of several talkers around a table in DCC. The others were on circuits within the engineering and damage control systems. The task of the talkers was to relay to the Damage Control Officer (DCO) any information passed by talkers elsewhere in the ship and, in turn, relay information from the DCO to specified departments or control points. I enjoyed having that battle station because on the JA circuit I could hear all the information passed to and from the major control points on the ship, especially Air Ops. It was like having a ring-side seat when we were engaged in air strikes.
One thing I didn’t like about being in Damage Control Central during general quarters was its location, five decks below the main deck (the hangar deck). We were sealed up near the bottom of the ship, well below the waterline, with all access hatches dogged shut. In an emergency our only way out was via an escape scuttle (a vertical ladder inside a steel tube that went straight up to the hangar deck). The problem was that guys on the hangar deck had a bad habit of stacking bomb fins or other materials on top of the escape scuttle hatch, making it impossible for us to get out if the need arose. I brought this to the attention of the DCO and he raised hell with the hangar deck petty officers. For a week or two the hatch would be kept clear but it never stayed that way. If ORISKANY had been sunk, all of us in DCC might have gone down with the ship.
At some point (I don’t remember when or why) my battle station was changed to the navigation bridge as the JA talker. I was happy to get out of the potential coffin of DCC and to be right at the center of the action. In addition, there was a pride factor — the Captain’s phone talker was, quite naturally, hand-picked as a capable and reliable man. It also gave me the opportunity to observe close-up how an outstanding captain commands his ship in action.
I had already formed a high opinion of Captain Connolly prior to becoming his phone talker. That developed from my experience writing “familygrams” for him. It was common practice on Navy ships when deployed overseas to send a periodic newsletter to the family of every man aboard. These would tell families what the ship was doing, important events and accomplishments, etc. The first familygram I wrote ran into a roadblock in the person of the officer whose job was “Ship’s Secretary.” He was responsible for all official correspondence coming in and going out. This little man thought nothing should go to the Captain unless it met with his approval. Of course, he butchered my familygram before sending it on to the Captain. The Captain later handed it to the Public Information Officer (my boss) when he was on duty as officer of the deck on the bridge and told him to have it rewritten. I restored it pretty much to its original form. My boss said to wait until he was on watch on the bridge again the next day and he’d have me bring it up when the Captain was on the bridge.
The next day I got a call from the Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”) of the Watch to bring the document up. When I arrived on the bridge my boss, LT(jg) Walker, moved close to the Captain’s chair and I approached him, saying , loud enough for the Captain to hear, “Here’s the rewrite on the familygram, Mr. Walker.” The Captain’s reaction was exactly what we’d hoped for. He turned and reached out his hand. LT Walker handed him the folder. I stood at the back of the bridge, out of the way, while the Captain read. He took out his pen and made a few small changes and then wrote his initials at the top of the first page. He handed the folder to LT Walker but turned to look at me as he did so and gave a slight nod. I felt seven feet tall as I left the bridge. We repeated this tactic with each subsequent familygram and there was nothing the Ship’s Secretary could do about it. But he got back at us on every other piece of official correspondence we originated thereafter. Oh well, c’est la guerre.
When I saw one of the changes the Captain made, my respect for him went up even more. I had written something like, “This is one of the finest crews I have had the privilege to command.” He crossed out “one of.” That was his consistent attitude. He was never guilty of faint praise and he recognized the excellent job his crew was doing.
There was another thing that set Bart Connolly apart from many other ship captains. While deployed, he set a policy that whenever we entered port, as soon as the ship was moored, liberty call was to be piped for all hands not in the duty section or otherwise restricted to the ship, even if it was early in the day. I heard he got complaints from some department heads who wanted to keep their men at work until the regular in-port “secure from ship’s work” time of 4:30. But he never changed the policy.
A ship’s crew will go all-out for a skipper like that. A basic rule of leadership that not all officers, nor petty officers, seem to realize is that if your men know you actually give a damn about them, they will sail into hell with you.
The brighest jewel in Captain Connolly’s crown, as far as most of the crew was concerned, was added on the day we got underway from Subic Bay and pointed the bow East, toward home, instead of West, toward the South China Sea. A couple of my guys went to evening chow before me and were excited when they returned to the office.
“You won’t believe what we got with chow,” they teased. Then they dropped the bombshell — every man going through the chow line was receiving a bottle of beer; actual, honest-to-gosh San Miguel beer. Of course, those of us who hadn’t been to chow yet didn’t believe a word of it, but we hurried to the mess deck anyway. Alcoholic beverages had been prohibited on U. S. Navy ships since early in the century (by a Secretary of the Navy who was a tee-totaler). A violation of that regulation could finish a man’s career. At the mess deck we discovered the impossible was really happening. At the end of the steam tables were big tubs of crushed ice and bottles of beer. Each man received a bottle, if he wanted it, even if he was not 21. That evening we would have elected Bart Connolly President of the United States, or maybe emperor. It was just the Captain’s way of saying “Thanks” for achieving a level of combat performance never before equalled by any carrier.
When I got back to the office my boss was there and we learned the officers had found bottles of wine on the tables in the wardroom when they went to supper. The junior officers were as delighted as the enlisted men but I’m sure some of the more senior officers were scandalized. I don’t know if the Captain got permission from higher authority to buy the crew a round but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he did it on his own.
I was equally impressed after we’d returned to North Island when I heard from a highly credible source this story. It seems the Navy had decided not to approve a Navy Unit Commendation for ORISKANY because the three carriers that had returned from Viet Nam air operations before us had each received that award. Our operational performance was significantly greater than that of our predecessors but the Navy didn’t want to set a precedent that every carrier upon completion of a Viet Nam deployment would receive a commendation. The Captain was nominated for either the Legion of Merit or Distinguished Service Medal, I don’t recall which. His citation was approved. According to the report I heard, he informed Pacific Fleet headquarters that he could not accept his award if the ship’s award was denied. This, too, is not recommended action for an officer who aspires to promotion. But we got our Navy Unit Commendation and the Captain got his medal.