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"Old Ironsides"
The History of USS Constitution Teaches New Chiefs About Navy Traditions

by JOC(SW/AW) Mark o. Piggott, USN


Honor, Courage, Commitment… This is the code of a United States Navy Sailor. It has been a part of our heritage since the Navy was founded in 1775. Yesterday and today come alive everyday for Sailors onboard USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

Recently, “Old Ironsides” played host to over 300 chief selectees from Navy ships, submarines, shore commands, aviation squadrons, and reserve units around the world. This is the seventh year that Constitution has hosted the event, giving the new chiefs vital training and lessons in naval history.

“The Constitution fought in 33 engagements and never lost,” said BM2(SW) Andrew P. Dingman, one of the tour guides onboard Constitution. “Two hundred years ago, the Constitution fought against the terrorist Barbary pirates. As a symbol of our war against terrorism today, it is a reminder that we will remain undefeated as a Navy.”

Of the 150 chief selectees from the fleet, 44 were submariners. From Kings Bay to Norfolk, from Pearl Harbor to Groton, these senior Sailors took pride in representing the “silent service” during their visit. “The submarine community is very close knit,” said EMC(SS) John P. Peckham, 39, of Submarine Squadron Support Unit (SSSU), Norfolk. “We are standing in for our fellow submariners, so we have to step up and not fall behind.”

During the four-day event, the new chiefs learned about the life of a Sailor serving onboard the Constitution in the 1800s. From climbing the mast and setting the sails, to manning the guns and even sleeping onboard, these chief selectees filled the shoes of their 19th century counterparts. It was an eye-opening experience.

“I have a greater appreciation for what Sailors did before all the technology came along,” said HMC(SS/SW/AW) Rodger A. Buck, 29, from USS Newport News (SSN- 750) in Norfolk. “I would recommend this for all Sailors to come and see, especially future chiefs,” the Ft. Walton Beach, Florida native explained.

“It’s been truly rewarding to step back in time,” said YNC(SS) Douglas C. Frisbie, 33, from Commander, Submarine Fleet Pacific. “It’s hard to believe that a ship from the very beginning of our Navy is afloat today and in service.”

“On a submarine, you have a lot of computers and fancy formulas to help you destroy an enemy with a torpedo or Tomahawk,” said MMC(SS) Richard T. Abrahamsen, 36, of SSSU Norfolk. “Lining up one of these guns takes a lot of muscle and keen eyesight. It’s a lot different from what we’re use to.”

“They were a different breed of Sailor,” Peckham added. “I challenge any Sailor today to do what they did. In rough seas, climbing across the yardarms, setting the sails – it’s amazing that they were able to do it,” the Weymouth, Massachusetts, native continued.

The one factor that brought the chief selectees together was teamwork, and it reflected the teamwork it took to make the Constitution a fighting warship. “Absolute teamwork,” Abrahamsen noted. “Everyone has to know what everyone else is doing to get the job done, whether its rigging the jib or firing one of the ship’s 24-pounder long guns.”

“We have to work together as a team on a submarine,” the Magnolia, New Jersey native continued, “so once we start working together as a team, we can get any job done. We’ve been able to do that here with all the new chiefs.”

Teamwork really came into play when the chief selectees were divided into gun crews and learned how to fire the ship’s long guns. They drilled the same way their 19th century counterparts did, trying to match their best speed. “A gun crew in the 1800s could fire a single round in thirty seconds,” Buck said. “That’s unbelievable. It’s amazing what they could accomplish.”

Photo caption follows
The new chiefs served aboard Constitution for four days, climbing the mast to set sails, manning the guns, even sleeping onboard.

Some of that teamwork was applied to some community-service projects. The new chiefs went out to Warren-Prescott Elementary School and spent part of their day cleaning, painting, and generally getting the school ready for students coming back to class in less than a week. “We have the manpower, they have the need,” said ETCM(SS/DSW) Steve Brandt, Constitution’s Command Master Chief. “We’re emphasizing teamwork with the new chiefs to get done whatever they need to get done.”

“They are getting a lot of work done that normally would never have been completed due to budget shortfalls,” said Dr. Domenic Amara, the school principal. “I think the whole experience has been nothing short of excellent.”

“Overall, it adds a whole lot of meaning to why we’re here,” said SKC(SS) Jason P. Buonvino, 32, of SSSU Norfolk. “The team is really coming together, especially for these kids.”

USS Constitution is just one feature of the “Freedom Trail,” a 1-1/2 mile walking tour of Boston’s historical landmarks. The new chiefs marched through the streets of downtown Boston, past Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church, and Quincy Market, singing and calling cadence for all of Boston to hear. People stepped out of their homes, stopped at a corner, or peered out of a restaurant window to see the chief selectees marching by. Some would clap and cheer; others would just say thank you. It was quite a spectacle.

“When you’re in a city like Norfolk where there’s nothing but Navy, you don’t get that kind of appreciation from people,” Buck said. “The people of Boston don’t get to see the Navy that often, and they’re letting us know how they feel.”

“We’re not only doing this for ourselves,” Buonvino added, “but it allows us to show off our ‘Navy Pride.’ And it’s a good feeling.”

This wasn’t just a chief’s event, but also a family affair. Two brothers, ETC(SS) Christopher O. Leggett, and HMC(SS/FMF) Michael A. Leggett, both made the trip to Boston. For these brothers, it was the first time in their 13-year careers that they’ve actually been together in one place except for home in Raeford, North Carolina.

“We’ve never served together,” said Christopher, “at any time in our careers. The pleasure of being with my brother is first and foremost, and to learn from chiefs of all specialties while surrounded by all this history is highly motivating,” he continued.

Another new chief got his father involved. ETC(SS) Eric B. Jones, 32, Pre-Commissioning Unit Texas (SSN-775), was surprised when his father, AWC Kirby Jones (retired), showed up at the Constitution. “I’m just as proud as can be,” Kirby said. “I’m jealous he gets to do all this. I wish they had it when I made chief.”

“Being here means so much to me, and sharing it with my father makes it even more special,” Eric said. “Here on the Constitution, looking at the things these Sailors used to do is incredible. It gives me more appreciation for what my father did in the Navy and what those Sailors did in the 1800s. By being here with my father, the traditions of the past go on from generation to generation, and will not be lost,” he explained.

The final day of the event culminated in a “turn-around” cruise, in which the chief selectees manned the ship and actually got “Old Ironsides” underway. The ship sailed out over two miles while the new “crew” manned the yards and fired a 21-gun salute to the United States of America.

“This is what it’s all about,” Abrahamsen said. “All the hard work we’ve done to get this great ship underway, the training in the ropes and the guns – it was definitely worth it.”

“This ship is a living representation of the core values of the Navy,” Buonvino added. “It’s an honor for all of us just to be here.”

Chief Piggott is the Force Journalist serving under Commander, Naval Submarine Forces.