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Remembrances And Lessons-Learned From Experiences Aboard The USS Rich (DD 820)     by:  Lee Champagne, DC3, 1966-67


My big adventure with the U.S. Navy adventure began in early 1966 aboard a Gearing Class FRAM I destroyer, the USS Rich (DD-820), home ported in Norfolk, VA.  I had joined the Navy for no particular reason except I had just graduated from high school; was told I had to leave home and had few options.  The Navy was as good as any.  I was not looking for a career and had no intention of staying in the Navy any longer than I had to. I wanted to see the world, get some experience and then move on to something better.  Little did I know at the time that the USS Rich would be just the first of many ships I served on in a long navy career that stretched over 30 years eventually culminating in command of a Kidd-Class destroyer (DDG-994) in 1990, major shore station command in 1995 and eventual retirement with the rank of Captain in 1998.  Now looking back over my Navy career, despite many days at sea away from home, long hours standing watch, not much sleep, I had some amazing fun experiences, learned a lot, made great friends and all in all, it was a good life.

When I first reported aboard the USS Rich, I remember going up the gangway in my new dress blues (cracker jacks) an 18 year old undesignated seaman apprentice (SA) ready to do great things, unfortunately I was quickly disappointed.   My initially assignment, perhaps befitting my lowly SA status, was to the ship’s deck force to work with the boatswains mates (aka: “deck apes”) as part of the crew that chipped paint and kept the exterior of the ship clean. It was all hard manual labor, and definitely not fun. At the time, I could not imagine anything worse. Soon, however, I able to escape the deck force, when the Chief Boatswains Mate (BMC) asked one day at morning quarters, “Can anyone type?” My arm was the only one that went up, and that same day found me in the ship’s office. I thought then I had it easy, typing all sorts of stuff, thermo faxing copies of correspondence, mimeographing and distributing the “plan of the day.” It was an easy gig, but it did not last long.  I fell out of favor with the Chief Yeoman (a long story) and was banished to the custody of the mess deck master-at-arms to begin three rigorous months of “mess-cooking,” (the Navy’s version of KP). This was definitely worse than the deck force.  It was long hours of preparing the crew’s meals and cleaning up afterwards breakfast, lunch, dinner, seven days a week.  I still have vivid memories of washing pots and pans in the scullery and struggling to carry 50 pound garbage cans full of food waste the length of the ship to dump over the fantail in high seas, without being washed overboard.  When my “mess-cooking” time was finally up, the ship’s office did not want me back, but I was saved from having to return to the deck force because there was an opening for the job of engineering log room yeoman, which required someone who could type and maintain the volumes of engineering department records and files.  My ship’s office experience helped me here.  The Chief Engineer (a great guy) interviewed me and gave me the job.  This was a fortunate turn of events as my life on the Rich only got better.  Being in the engineering department allowed me opportunities to pursue my ultimate goal at the time:  to become a shipboard fire fighter (damage controlman).  I had several older cousins, who had served an initial stint in the military as firefighters and then after getting out had gotten jobs on the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) thanks to nepotism.  One of them promised to help me when I got out if I could get similar experience.  My new log room job allowed me to meet and make friends with the damage controlmen. I was able to do some administrative favors for them and in return they allowed me to work with them during my off hours to get experience.  Eventually, with the support of the Chief Engineer and the Chief Damage Controlman (DCC), I was allowed to take the third class damage control exam.  I passed on my first try and was soon promoted (first increment) to Damage Control Petty Officer, third class (DC3).  I caught on fast and the remainder of my time onboard the Rich, I spent working on shipboard fire systems, maintaining repair lockers, conducting training, and leading fire parties and I even got to put out a fire or two.  A lesson I learned here was life on a Navy ship is much more pleasant after becoming a petty officer because the term “sh*t rolls downhill,” definitely applies.  Unpleasant tasks mostly falls to lower ranked sailors to perform, so the key to a better life aboard ship is make the rank, the quicker the better, get “uphill,” and then all the nasty stuff will roll past down to those unfortunate fellows below.     

I was on the USS Rich at a good time, as interesting things seemed to be always happening.  Soon after I first reported aboard the ship, we deployed to Europe for a six months Northern Atlantic cruise.  It was terrific.  We visited great ports like: Bergen, Norway; Portsmouth, England; Dieppe, France; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Zeebrugge, Belgium; and Cuxhaven, Germany, where I had the opportunity to make a side trip to Berlin and saw the “Wall” and famous Berlin Zoo).  Before returning home the ship had an unexpected stop and extended stay in Belfast, North Ireland for emergent hull repairs after (I think) colliding with a whale.  We were there during a time of tension between the Protestants and Catholics so we were told to be very careful not to get involved, but here were no issues.  I remember really enjoying Belfast because we had more time to explore and meet the people and were treated well.   Every port we visited was a big adventure as it was all strange and new and the ladies were friendly.  One thing that attracted the ladies was our rock band.  We had some very musically talented crew members who formed a band which performed in every port. They were wildly received with enthusiasm by crew and the locals alike.  To this day every time I hear the Tokens sing “The Lion Sleeps tonight,” I am immediately mentally catapulted back to “Rich.”  I thought that was one of the band’s best songs.  After the deployment, we returned to Norfolk, and my time was spent with firefighting schools and training, taking leave, visiting my family in Atlanta and New Orleans and exploring Virginia Beach.  After a few months, the ship began going out to sea again on exercises and then down to Guantanamo Bay for refresher training (REFTRA), where I discovered that being Scene Leader for Repair 2 (and 3) was (in retrospect) perhaps the toughest leadership challenge I have ever had and having mastered that, I felt I could do anything.   The ship made visits in several other Caribbean ports including Key West, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica and then returned to Norfolk.  After a period in port that the ship began working up for its next deployment to the Mediterranean, but I did not make it as my time was up.  I remember going down the gangway my last time, near the end of summer, in 1967, with a ticket in hand for the West Coast.

In retrospect, the USS Rich was a great learning experience for me.  Although some of the things I learned were ultimately less useful, like twirling a swab, operating a floor buffer, swinging a chipping hammer, unplugging toilets, overhauling fire pumps, or wearing an OBA, it was all good stuff to know later when I became an officer as it helped me identify with the crew and be a better officer.  Perhaps the most important lesson I learned aboard the USS Rich was the realization of just how important and valuable “sailors” are in the Navy.  The old adage, “take care of the crew and they will take care of you,” is true.  I saw on the USS Rich that it was the crew, from the most senior chief down to the lowest enlisted were the people who really made things happen and keep things working. They cooked the food, did the laundry, made potable water, power and lights.  They made the ship move, ran communications; performed all the seamanship functions as well as ensured all critical navigation and warfighting capabilities were ready when needed, from the radars, sonar, to the guns, rockets/missiles, and torpedoes.  On the Rich, we had a great crew.  We did it all and I was proud to be a part of it.  I worked for a great Chief and PO1 and alongside some terrific hardworking shipmates and friends.  I never forgot any of that and am proud to have worn “cracker jacks.” (I still have the top, with my DC3 crow, and the cuffs that when folded back reveal colorful silk embroidered Chinese dragons…at the time this was cool).   

I have lots of stories from my time aboard the USS Rich.  One story that made a definite impression upon me was the results of events that occurred on my very first night at sea, while standing watch.  I was assigned as the messenger of the watch, under instruction (MOWU/I) and was in training to learn the less than arduous duties of the MOW. My watch assignment that night was to tail another seaman apprentice around for the 4 hour watch and learn everything he did so I could do it on my own the next time.   The messenger of the watch (MOW) position is at the very bottom of the pecking order of the shipboard watch organization, so it is not complicated job.  It basically involves waking up watch reliefs and performing whatever minor errands that are directed by the Boatswain’s mate of the Watch (BMOW). At the very top of the watch organization is the exalted Officer of the Deck (OOD), an important position, as the OOD is responsible for overseeing and directing the ship’s safe movement and navigation at sea.  Now back to the story:  The watch began around midnight and not much had happened during the first couple hours until the Officer of the Deck (OOD), holds up an empty coffee cup and yells across the bridge to the BMOW saying, “Boats, a cup of coffee!”   The BMOW says “Aye Sir,” takes the empty cup and turns to the MOW and says “messenger, get the OOD some coffee!”   The MOW takes the officers cup and taps me on the shoulder and says “let’s go!”  I followed him down into the darkened dimly red-lit ship interior and we entered the wardroom, which was similarly lit to protect ones night vision.  I had never been in a wardroom or “Officer Country” before and was a little nervous and awed.   The MOW proceeds across the room to a coffee pot back in a corner.  I was still busy staring around the room when I heard, “Hey watch this.”  The MOW had his zipper down and had just done something with the cup before filling it up with strong smelling black coffee.  I saw what he had done and was shocked.  I was going to say something, but he cut me off and said, “Keep your mouth shut and let’s go!”  I did, and we proceeded back up to the bridge. The filled coffee cup was given to the BMOW, who brought it over to the OOD, who took it (without even saying thanks), and turned away and began to slowly sip his coffee, apparently suspecting no foul play.  The BMOW, the MOW and I all stared at him. I was the only one not smirking, but I knew I just learned something very important, that I should never forget.  I didn’t, during my next 30 years in the Navy, and afterwards, I have always gotten my own coffee.

The USS Rich was a relatively small ship, with a crew slightly over 200 and maybe only a dozen officers, so after a while most people are known to each other.  I got to know a little more about the OOD on my first night at sea, who I initially felt kind of sorry for after the coffee incident.  He was just a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) about three years out of the Naval Academy and seemed very smart, but I learned that he was not universally loved by the crew as he had a reputation for being an arrogant egotist who was quick to criticize and  looked down upon the enlisted as inferior creatures.  I learn this for myself about a year later much to my chagrin.  I was now a petty officer and he was still a LTJG.  The scene again was on the ship’s bridge at night while at sea.   He was again the OOD but I had moved up in the watch pecking order and was now standing sounding and security (S/S) watch. This watch requires traveling throughout the ship to all the remote unoccupied spaces below decks to check condition of operational machinery and look for leaks or any other hazards, and then checking off the status of each space visited on a watch sheet.  It takes about an hour to inspect all the spaces on the sheet, after which the S/S watch goes up to the bridge and reports to the OOD that all was well, and the OOD in return initials the check sheet, and the cycle is repeated, (four times per watch).  I had just finished my last inspecting tour.  I returned to the bridge and went over to the OOD, who was facing away staring out at the stars or something.  As before, I saluted and said, “Sir, the sounding and security watch reports all secure, Sir!” and presented the clipboard so he could sign the check sheet.  But, he neither moved nor acknowledged my presence in any way.  So I again repeated, “Sir, the sounding and security watch reports all secure, Sir!”  There was still no acknowledgement.  After the third time I repeated the phase, with no response, so I gently tapped him on his shoulder, which elicited a big response.  He jerked around and angrily wiping his shoulder where I tapped him and said in extreme disgust, “Enlisted people don’t touch officers!”  I was dumbfounded and angry, but said nothing.  I just turned and left the bridge.  I later recounted the incident to my Chief the next morning.  I was still furious, but he advised me to calm down and to just accept that things were just the way they are.  I said, “does he really believe just because he is an officer, he is better than me or you Chief?   If (I might have used an expletive here) he can become an officer, so can I!”  I remember my Chief at the time was trying hard to convince me to reenlist, stay in the Navy and follow in his footsteps.  He was a genuine good guy, but at that moment working towards being a Damage Controlman Chief had no appeal. I suddenly had other ideas.  I left the ship soon after that.  I did not go to New Orleans and try to join the NOFP.  I went off to college in Oregon (OSU) thanks to the GI Bill and a subsequent NROTC scholarship.

Interesting enough, about 12 years or later in Seattle, I again met the former OOD from the USS Rich.  He was still in the Navy. He held the rank of Commander (CDR), and was then serving as the Commanding Officer/Captain of an old reserve destroyer.  I was now a Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) serving on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CPF) and was temporarily assigned to the CPF Inspector General (IG) for this trip as a one of the team leaders sent out to perform material inspections of the reserve destroyers based in Seattle.  There were four (or so) destroyers to be inspected, all were the same class and almost identical to the USS Rich.   Coincidentally, my team was assigned to inspect his ship.  When we walked aboard the ship, the Captain greeted our team with a big smile and ushered us in the wardroom (which looked much like the Rich’s wardroom) and offered us coffee and doughnuts.  (I got my own coffee).  He looked a little heavier, but very similar to the officer I remembered from the Rich.  I introduced myself, but he neither recognized me nor my name.  We were very cordial to each other.  After our initial meeting, I met with the ship’s operation officer. He was a former classmate of mine from destroyer school and he held his Captain in high regards.  He said he was good leader, had a great reputation and was well liked by the crew; also that he had earned the Silver Star in Viet Nam. He was a hero. I was impressed.  Apparently he had changed, but so had I.  I had no interest in bringing up the past or letting it affect the future.  I was enjoying being a naval officer, I had just gotten selected for XO of a destroyer and I probably still wouldn’t have been in uniform if not for what happen on the Rich long ago. The Commander had done me a favor back then, which I returned. The inspection was conducted professionally.  Any defects that were found was because the reserve destroyers were very old; they all had material problems, none no worse than the others.  Perhaps because of that inspection, it wasn’t too much later that the Navy decommissioned those ships like the Rich. 

If there is a leadership lesson from that Seattle trip, it was:  there is value in being polite and showing consideration to people junior to you, whenever you can as you will never know what the future will be, and maybe you can influence it to the good.


Lee Champagne is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) with FEMA from Edmonds, WA.  He is currently the Chief of Emergency Response Support Group (MERS) in Bothell where they run FEMA’s 24/7 watch center and have all the highly trained technicians, equipment and supplies to rapidly deploy to support any federal response to any big disasters up and down the West Coast, Alaska and US Pacific Islands.

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