Doing Business in Great Waters

Prepared remarks for USS Arleigh Burke Christening, September 16, 1989

We are here today to recognize and to celebrate the second of three major milestones in the birth of a new ship – midway between the laying of its keel, and the point where it achieves full status as a United States Man-0-War – its commissioning into the United States Navy. We are here to launch Hull number DDG 51 – a metal embryo growing, developing into a new warship. It’s not a Man-0-War yet, but it’s well on its way.

It’s an important day – one particularly heavy with traditions and ceremonies reaching far back into the dim recesses of recorded history. Launching a new ship is the one time – more than any other – when we stop to recognize and appreciate the enormous debt all sailors owe to their predecessors – men and women over the millennia like those recorded in Psalms 107:

…’That go down to the sea in ships; That do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.’

DDG 51 is well on its way to becoming the most technologically advanced ship of its type in any navy. It represents the best thinking, the best engineering, and the best workmanship in the world. It is a ship which will take the U.S. surface Navy into the 21st Century.

Yet, as we marvel at its technology, at how much it has advanced the state of the art in shipbuilding, we should also remember the common bond this new ship and its future crew has with all others preceding it. So, we also pause today to recognize the great debt all sailors owe to those whose profession it was to ‘Do Business in Great Waters.’

Special ceremonies at the launching of a new ship are among our oldest traditions. thousand of years our nautical ancestors have done so. For us, as it was for them, the sea is vast, powerful, and unpredictable – demanding the utmost of the men and of the ships who ventured far from shore and safety. Instinctively, they sought divine protection for their craft from the tempests and dangers posed by the sea. While we are still concerned about dangers to our ships from that quarter, our greatest concern lies with the potential dangers posed by other Men-0-War – both above and beneath the surface. Against these greater dangers, we also ask for divine providence.

There is an old expression that goes: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I am reminded of that expression today as we prepare to celebrate the transition from land to sea of the most modern ship yet produced by man – the latest of tens upon thousands of ships man has launched since he graduated from dugout canoes to galleys. Three thousand years before Christ, a Babylonian sailor recorded when he was completing his ship that:

‘Openings to the water I stopped; I searched for cracks and the wanting parts I fixed;
To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed.’

Modern sailors – and shipbuilders – know the truth and the enduring importance of his words. Five thousand years and many orders of technological magnitude later, we are proceeding with the same basic process today. It is no less important today that we stop the openings to the water, search for the cracks, and fix the wanting parts.

In addition to celebrating the transition of Hull DDG 51 from land to water – its natural environment – we celebrate today another significant milestone in its progress towards joining the fleet. At this stage what had been just a hull, increasingly crammed with equipment and systems, received a far more important addition – its heart. A cold, mechanical, disorganized, and awkward collection of metals and plastic, begins to throb and pulse with the life and aspirations of its future crew. As its crew is assembled from across the country and throughout the Navy, Hull DDG 51 is truly recognizable as a future United States Navy Man-0- War. Many of its crew are inexperienced, some are raw recruits joining their first ship. Eager and wanting to accomplish great things, but inexperienced. Their petty officers are experienced, but come from different ships and from different backgrounds in the Navy. It will take time for them to get together, to work together, and to create the best Man-0-War they can, one that will operate to the maximum of its capabilities, then you really have The Crew.

For most Men-0-War, the period from now until some months after commissioning is the most important period in the life of the ship – until it goes into battle. This is the time when her first crew begins making that ship’s name – the reputation she earns throughout the fleet. Achieving that good reputation as a ‘can do’ ship in fighting trim is a responsibility falling most heavily on the Commanding Officer. He leads, he shows the way, and, his officers help him. The most important contributors to the future reputation and accomplishments of any new ship however, are its petty officers.

The most important man, next to the captain, on any ship in my opinion, is the ship’s Master Chief Petty Officer – the “chief of the boat”. He can and should inspire its petty officers and crew, direct them in ways that officers cannot, and he knows where its weaknesses are before anyone else. If he is very good, and fortunately, we have many Master Chief Petty Officers like this, he has these weaknesses corrected before others find them, and before they reduce the ship’s fighting fitness. Chief Petty Officers, and in particular, Command Master Chief Petty Officers are the backbone of any crew …and the Navy.

Very few officers have ever commissioned a new ship. When I look back on it, I was a member of the commissioning crew of two ships. And, that was over a forty year span of service. That’s not very many, yet, the influence that members of the pre-commissioning crew had on those ships was greater than on any others in which we served. Later, when I joined a ship already commissioned, already operating, its form was fixed, so to speak. Its ideals were fixed, you could improve them, sharpen them, but basically her goals, her spirit, were already in place and would remain so for years to come. I have seen ships that reflected their commissioning crew ten years after they were commissioned. Long after all members of that original crew had been detached. The legacy, good or bad, of a warship’s plank owners and commissioning crew lives on for many years after it has felt the bottle of champagne on its bow. I don’t think that any officer or petty officer realizes how important this period is until after he has gone through the drill. Then he realizes just how very important this period is to the ship, to its crew …and to him.

The pre-commissioning crew and the time they spend together completing the ship, putting in place the training, the traditions that become that ship’s heritage, last long after they themselves have served on that ship and departed. In fact, they will determine the performance of that ship to a large degree, for the remainder of its career in the Navy.

Also, this crew remains friends for years and years afterwards. I still get letter at time from members of the crew of the old USS Mugford. Long since retired …reminding me of things I had forgotten …and sometimes, of things which never happened.

Shortly before the ceremony marking the keel construction, Admiral Joe Metcalf asked me what advice I would give to the men who will eventually man DDG 51. I thought it over, and offered this bit of advice based on some personal experience … ‘THIS SHIP IS BUILT TO FIGHT – YOU HAD BETTER KNOW HOW.’

At that ceremony, we all recognized the challenge to the designers, engineers, and craftsmen who would build her to build the very best – to make her the most effective ship of her type in the world – to live up to their responsibility to our country, our navy, and to you, the crew of DDG 51, to build the very best surface ship possible – a destroyer built to fight …and to win. Today we see they are meeting that challenge …fulfilling that responsibility.

As we look to the future – to the commissioning of USS ARLEIGH BURKE – we know a staggering amount of work lies ahead, not solely by the engineers and craftsmen at Bath Iron Works, but also by the pre-commissioning crew. There is much yet to be done. You must work together smoothly as a ship’s crew and shipyard team, as such teams have for ages – stopping openings to the water, searching for cracks, and fixing wanting parts. Build her fit, and learn to fight her. For when next we meet to place her in commission, let no one doubt that this new destroyer is indeed ready to go down to the sea, ready to do business in great waters.”