Heads will Roll


By Pat Glesner



The Air Force C-130 touched down at the Obihiro airport, rolled on to the tarmac, and discharged three very glum looking passengers, our skipper and our two chief petty officers.  The skipper, LTJG Todd Watanabe, was a serious, thoroughly professional young officer who no doubt knew that his career might hinge on how well he did his job as CO of LORSTA Hokkaido.  This guided the way he did business, even before it hit the fan.  At the moment he was still smarting from his recent ass-crewing, and no doubt felt that his career was headed into shoal waters.  ETCS Art Odgers and MKC Gerry Beneke had left with smiles on their faces, thinking they were headed for a week long boondoggle.  Instead they had endured a week long ass‑chewing, punctuated by much waving of their enlisted evaluations. 


The Commander of Chain Operations (COCO), LT Todd Pellman, looking very smug, also stepped off that plane.  It was my turn for an ass-crewing; however, Pellman was courteous enough to hold off until we reached the privacy of the wardroom.  Pellman was a hard man to read.  He always affected the same self-satisfied smirk, no matter what mood he might be in.  It didn’t matter if he was chewing you out, as in this case, or expressing satisfaction in a job well done, he always spoke in the same calm, well-modulated voice.  But there was little doubt about where he was coming from now. 


The Far East’s Finest was anything but, Pellman lectured.  In fact, LORSTA Hokkaido had the worst reputation in the entire LORAN community.  And it had been that way for a very long time.  Someone up the chain had now decided that this had gone on long enough.  It was time for a little “A” style leadership, Pellman said, and he was here to deliver it.  He didn’t wave my fitness report, though.  He acknowledged that the only way a fitness report could harm a CWO4 was if you rolled it up and poked him in the eye with it.  But, he concluded, “There are other ways to motivate you.”  He didn’t elaborate, just stood up and headed for the Timer Building, where he spent the next week, testing and drilling, and in general hammering us unmercifully.


That evening the skipper and I discussed the situation over a couple of beers.  This was highly unusual, since the skipper did not drink.  I suppose it was understandable, though, for the young lad was obviously very much shaken up by his scolding, which had come directly from the FESEC Commander, Captain John Sproat.  Sproat had told him that the way to eliminate watchstander error was to institute zero tolerance, and severely punish anyone who stood less than a perfect watch.  Our most recent incident came up in the exchange, with Sproat expressing extreme dissatisfaction in how we handled it.  Thus, my orders, earlier that day, to pull the culprit from the watch list, place him on report, and then quickly complete a pre-mast investigation, postdated three weeks earlier.  I was against booking him.  He had been at the station for a year and had only one week to go before he rotated out.  By all accounts he had been a good watchstander.  He only made one, admittedly major, mistake in that year, and that had been over a month earlier.  I felt he should be grandfathered, especially since he had already paid a price for his blunder.  Watanabe agreed, but decided to wait and see how the week turned out. 


No shining stars emerged during COCO’s visit; however, all but one of our watchstanders performed satisfactorily.  The young seaman who had had most recently erred was the only one to do poorly, and since we had already pulled his watch qualification letter, our asses was covered.  We let it go at that, scrapped the report chit, and put him on the plane home.  From that moment on Captain Sproat’s “no more foul ups tolerated” policy went into effect.  We didn’t have to wait long to test its effectiveness.  We had no more than put COCO on the plane when we had twelve minutes Out-of-Tolerance without Blink.


LORAN time was measured in picoseconds.  Drift an infinitesimal bit out of the operating parameters and wonderful things began to happen: sirens, bells, klaxons, and horns screeched, clanged, hooted and bellowed, red and yellow lights flashed, and wild-eyed, half-dressed technicians started running around in circles.  It’s been fifteen years, but I still occasionally wakeup in a cold sweat, having imagined such things in my sleep.  It’s the sort of thing that turns good men into Twidgets. 


The ETs didn’t lose any sleep that night.  It was Commando Lion that had drifted, an almost routine occurrence.  Being routine, the watchstander didn’t think it necessary to sound the alarm.  Most of us did not find out about the problem until the next morning.  The problem was that Blink hadn’t been initiated.  Blink warned LORAN users of an out-of-tolerance condition.  There was some confusion as to who would buy this bad time.  Yokota Monitor had control of the baseline, and as such, was responsible for initiating Blink.  But our watchstander knew the baseline was OOT, could have Blinked, but didn't.  Although this was a serious foul up, I felt we should share the bad time and the blame with Yokota Monitor.  If our man was to be punished, the man who erred on their end should suffer too.  FESEC didn’t see it that way.  They dumped all of it on us.  They also made it clear: an OOT or casualty on Commando Lion was to be treated no differently than the same on the Northwest Pacific chain. 


So I conducted an abnormality analysis and a pre-mast investigation.  I recommended a Page 7 and extra instruction for the wrongdoer, an ET3.  Watanabe vetoed it.  “That won’t suffice anymore,” he said.  “We really need to settle this at mast.”  So I ran the man up to the station office for the formalities, where the skipper found him guilty of dereliction of duty and gave him to a suspended bust and a week’s restriction.  


If anyone expected that hammering one guy would cause everyone else to fall into line and end human error at LORSTA Hokkaido, they were mistaken.  Things only got worse.  The next three weeks were a total disaster, as I became intimately acquainted with each of the crew as I individually ran them before the mast.  On the mess deck they were joking, “Save yourself some time—stand watch in your dress blues.”  Nobody laughed though.  I was becoming very proficient at writing abnormality analyses and mast investigation.  I tried to do an honest investigation—harping on the fact that Commando Lion is almost impossible to keep in tolerance—and recommending the least punishment the “old man.” would buy.  Watanabe essentially agreed with me, but ended up hammering the guys anyway.  There was some good news, though.  Commando Lion may have been drifting all over the place; however, Northwest Pacific had maintained a rock steady hum for several weeks.


The string of disasters invited even more scrutiny and “A” style leadership.  FESEC (eee) spent a week with us, went over the Electronics Department with a fine toothed comb, and left us a long list of action items.  Captain Sproat and his deputy LTCDR Gazley arrived individually to lecture us first hand.  FESEC (ecv) also paid us a visit, trying to uncover more dirt.  The Civil Engineers were up our 625' tower when a moderately severe earthquake jolted the station. 


 In Japan the ground always rolled.  Fairly severe ‘quakes occurred every couple of weeks, and hardly a day went by without a minor tremor.  The first time I felt a severe earthquake, only a few days after my arrival, I staggered down a literally rolling hallway and into the front yard with the newbies and nervous, to find the violently riled goldfish pond slopping over its sides. Chief Beneke leisurely strolled out a few minutes later, coffee cup in hand, to inform us that we had only experienced a “baby ‘quake.”


After the engineers came down from the stick and calmed their nerves, I casually asked them about our buildings’ ability to withstand these tremors.  This led into a long spiel about structural members and re‑bar spacing with the bottom line being “the Coast Guard designs buildings that last.”  That was one inspection we passed.


FESEC gave us some breathing room over the holidays.  At the same time Commando Lion finally began to settle down.  That and the holiday spirit gave the crew a much needed boost.  At first, though, it seemed as if Christmas was going to slip by without notice.  It was not exactly the most celebrated holiday in Japan, and there were few of the reminders you’d find in the states—no holidays specials on TV, no department store Santas, no decorative street lights ... no Nativity scene in the churchyard.  In fact, there was no church!


But then the mail arrived, bringing hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cards.  You would not believe how many people remembered Hokkaido’s twenty‑four Americans.  After the walls filled up I started dumping our cards on the game table.  That soon filled to overflowing.  And still the cards came in!  They really made a difference.  There were individual cards and letters and packages from families of course.  But it was those greeting from strangers that drew us together and made Christmas a “family” celebration.  There had been no community spirit at all until that first batch of colorful cards went up on the wall.  Not long after that the guys had the tree up and were stringing decorations around the mess deck.  Only one thing seemed missing: despite Hokkaido's reputation for bitter winters, it looked like we would not have a white Christmas.  When I awoke that morning the ground was still bare.  But around ten AM that day the sky finally opened up and the landscape was soon covered with a beautiful three inch layer.  The temptation was too great, and I soon joined the crew, tubing down the hill behind the station.  Meanwhile SS1 Vincecruz and Shishi prepared a holiday feast.  That afternoon many of our Japanese friends arrived to help us celebrate the day.  Among them were grade school children from Tokachibuto, who were greeted by Santa: DC2 Greg “Chumley” Ackley in a red suit and beard.


Our spirits stayed high on into the New Year.  Northwest Pacific was approaching a fifty day run of 99% on-air and in-tolerance, which was the best it had done in a very long time.  It almost lasted a week.  About midnight, Thursday 5 January sirens, bells, klaxons, and horns screeched, clanged, hooted and bellowed, red and yellow lights flashed, and wild-eyed, half-dressed technicians and engineers started running around in circles.  When it was over we were back to square one on both chains and I had two more mast investigations to do.  The next day another guy screwed up giving me three to do.  This time it wasn't the ET's though.  All three are engineers.  We had a terrible storm Thursday and Friday.  That caused the commercial power to drop out several times, and in two instances the engineers took minutes to get our generators running, something that should have only taken seconds.   It was the start of another run of bad luck.  With it, morale at LORSTA Hokkaido began to plummet again.    



Return To Coast Guard Stories