Midnight Ride of the
For the actual sailing
orders, and the Itenerary, see the "wardroom" section.
I have enjoyed reading
your recollections and comments on the famous midnight
ride of our gig, under Bernie McMahon's command, from
somewhere out at sea to Charleston. You have stirred many
memories, the leading question being "Was I nuts?"
I don't think so, but because none of you have yet heard
what motivated me to do this, you might have the same
question in your minds. So let me tell my story, as best
I can recollect it after forty years.
I was impressed at the time we were together, by the role
that brave and innovative leadership plays in a ship like
ours. I was not thinking of myself, but of all of you,
officers and enlisted together. I knew that SEMMES was
just one stage in your careers, and if your were not
going to be challenged on my watch, you would be
challenged eventually. The secret of success is to be
ready when you are challenged. That is the core reason
for imaginative training.
The default of peacetime service is that the challenges
of wartime are not encountered, and the risk of
simulating them too closely is quite great, the Navy
being generally in a no-fault mode. As a result,
peacetime training aims at excelling at what are
considered prudent standards, which are too often
inadequate when the realities of hostilities are
encountered. The result was in our time, and I suspect is
not much changed today, that the crew was coddled by
being shielded from any actual risks. If it was a bit too
rough, we canceled the boating exercises. If the
visibility was hazy, we canceled the gun shoot.
Because I had a brother who was a naval aviator, who had
been a DD gunnery officer for two years beforehand, with
whom I used to shoot the bull to good advantage, I became
aware that there was one place in the Navy where this
idea of coddling the new hands was not accepted. That was
in carrier aviation. Those young pilots were expected to
launch into the dark and stormy nights just like their
older mates, fly off to some distant target, and then get
back aboard. It dawned on me that If they could do it, so
could our boat officers and their crews. Everybody would
be nine feet tall the next day.
You might recall that just before we left Charleston for
that cruise to PR for "Springboard," we hosted
a visiting Canadian DD, HMCS Something. We had a wild
night in the Wardroom with a collection of Charleston
Belles who were very adventurous going out one port hole,
up to the upper deck, across, and back in through the
opposite port. It was an introduction to Canadian Navy
games. Tom Boyce was there and can confirm, as can Bernie.
The Canadian skipper told me about his plans for going
back to Halifax. They involved an exercise called Outward
Bound by the Canadians, which meant in this case putting
a boat in the water about 100 miles from Halifax and
having the junior officer and his mates get it home,
mostly under sail. Flash! The idea was born!
I do recall that I never mentioned this to the XO. Then
one dull day when we were in the exercise areas about 35
miles north of San Juan, I broke it to the Wardroom at
lunch. I broke it cold. "Gentlemen, about 1330 we
will take a course suitable for launching the gig, which
will be equipped for an independent run to San Juan to
await our arrival after today's exercises. Do I have a
volunteer for a boat officer to organize and command this
exercise?" A stunned silence. Then every hand went
The XO and I gave considerable thought to choosing the
two officers. We wanted the drill to be a reinforcing
experience for the Boat Officer in Charge. Not everyone
needed reinforcing. On the other hand, some of the
officers were not quite ready for the responsibility. So
we bracketed the problem.
Then there was the Junior Boat Officer. Too strong an
officer might preempt the Senior Boat Officer and negate
the results for him. Too inexperienced a junior could
deprive the senior officer of the support he was entitled
to. Again, a bracket.
I can clearly see in my mind's eye the distant mountains
of Puerto Rico on the southern horizon when we put the
gig in the water and wished the crew a safe passage. Sea
conditions were not harbor conditions, but safe enough
for maybe 8 to 10 knots. That would be three to four
hours. Some of you may remember the message we broadcast
on the common circuit, something like "Ships
participating in Operation Springboard encountering the
SEMMES' gig unaccompanied in the southern exercise areas
be advised that the gig's passage to San Juan is part of
normal shipboard training, and unless assistance is asked
for, none should be offered." You can imagine
the raised eyebrows that message produced!
The gig was waiting for us, you remember, at the Coast
Guard Station in the inner harbor, and led the way to our
berth, the crew having shifted into whites, all nine feet
The boat trip from at sea off Savannah to Charleston was
even more challenging, being at night and further at sea,
and with a difficult inshore navigation problem after
making landfall. Again, we were met by a very proud crew,
looking as smart as though it was merely a routine boat
You might be interested to know that I wrote up both of
these exercises for ComDesLant, via the chain of command,
recommending that they be made the basis for a standard
exercise and leadership training plan, similar to the
Canadian's "Outward Bound." I do not recall any
supporting endorsements along the way, and I am very sure
the recommendation when it reached the Force Commander
was greeted with silence. So much for dare to excel
beyond your own lifelines.
I have not been able to follow all of your comments on
this episode, having been discombobulated by a horrendous
move from our home of 25 years, but from what I have seen
in the last couple of days, I gather that you all
remember it with pride and affection. That's as it should
My very best to you all.
Captain Alexander, for the background on the gig trip.
For me the exercise fulfilled its function. I think we
all arrived at Charleston standing nine feet tall. As a
result of this discussion I have recently gotten in touch
with Bernie McMahon and we did some reminiscing. I wonder
if any of the wardroom remembers the amazing parties we
used to have at Bernie & Ellen's place on Tradd
Street. And...I am pleased to hear you mention the
socializing with the officers from Canada. I remember
people climbing in and out of the portholes, but nobody
else I ever told the story to would believe it. I feel
validated! It sure made an impression on this green
I need to ask you a question. Was it you that used to go
alongside during replenishment by approaching at all
ahead two-thirds or all ahead full and then ordering all
back to slow the ship down?
Hello, Jack: No it was not
me who used the backing bells to slow down. At least I
don't remember doing it as a standard practice.
That wild Wardroom party with the Canadians was in their
ship, not ours. I recall their CO telling his Exec, his
"Number One", that if any of those girls got
hurt, the Exec's career was over. Nobody got hurt, and we
all had a great time.
I also think that the Gig trips were in 1964, during the
spring before I handed over to Bob Wellander. Not in 1963.
In 1963 we were still learning to excel.
What a crew. Hope you are well. Best wishes.