Submarine Force Says Goodbye to "Big Al, the Sailor's Pal"

For 38 years, there was the voice. Sometimes booming, sometimes almost whispering, cajoling the person on the other end of the conversation to see things his way. The voice was a unique, passionate advocate for submarine programs, and the Sailors that took submarines to sea.

In a submarine community characterized by modulated, flattened accents and even-tempered tone, the voice cut though like a foghorn, redolent of 1950s Tony Curtis movies, cigar smoke, and his native Queens, where there were Noo Yawkizz rooting for the lamented Dodgizz.

The voice was the biggest weapon of “Big Al, the Sailor’s Pal.” And if you were up against that voice, arguing with VADM Al Konetzni – well, in the end you might feel like the mug, leaving the table with empty pockets, but with a little smile and a pat on the back, defeated by the best. But if you were a beaten-down Sailor thinking about giving up on the Navy, this admiral spared no personal effort, including breaking some Navy traditions, to help you stay in the service.

Because that was what he believed was right.

VADM Al Konetzni hugging and awarding another officerVADM Konetzni, the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command and the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, retired on 17 July surrounded by hundreds of shipmates in a ceremony on the submarine piers in Norfolk. The location was appropriate considering that’s where that voice did its best work.

His voice betrayed where this gregarious officer came from, a neighborhood where the heady brew of ethnic groups and jumbled backgrounds would prepare him for future leadership in a diverse Navy. You get the feeling after talking to this big fellow that while he never was the last guy picked for a ballgame, he made sure that that last guy got picked.

But the enduring concern for the junior Sailor that made him a name in the submarine fleet from Pearl Harbor to Norfolk didn’t come from that Queens neighborhood. Shortly after graduating high school in suburban White Plains in 1962, he was in a hot mess hall at the Naval Academy filling out a personal information form with hundreds of other young men, blinking back the tears of homesickness.

“There was this guy up on a platform with a loudspeaker,” VADM Konetzni recalls. “He said, put your name in block one. I got that right. Okay, date of birth in block two, yeah, I got that right.”

But in a moment of distraction, he made a mistake on block three, home of record. “I’d never heard that term. I looked at the paper of the guy sitting next to me, and he was from Miami. In pencil, I started writing ‘Miami,’ and caught myself, so I started crossing it out, but it was too late.”

In an explosion of shouts, a second-class midshipman hauled him in front of the assembly, rang a bell and announced: “We have our first zero! And last year’s zero only lasted three days!”

“You ever have that feeling when you say to yourself, gee, I’ve done bad things before, but why the hell am I getting ridiculed for this little thing?”

During his 10 weeks of Plebe Summer, VADM Konetzni remembered, “I got my butt kicked, I mean, hazing – yeah, I’d call it hazing. But I thought, well, maybe that’s what you get for being a New Yorker and having a big mouth.

“What it taught me,” he said, his voice falling to just above a whisper, “was that if we want to sub-humanize somebody, we can do it. If we want to make a guy act or think stupid, we can do that. If we
want to take somebody’s name away, pride away, we collectively, can do that. And I didn’t like that.”

VADM Konetzni admitted that earning that designation as the first zero of his class drove him to success in sports and academics. He graduated with merit and later moved on to command USS Grayling (SSN-646), Submarine Squadron 16, and eventually the U.S. Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet.

Despite all his personal success, however, he never forgot about his fellow plebes who were hazed, and unlike him, left the Academy.

Young Al Konetzni

“I am convinced in any organization that if you are taking care of the weakest – and I’m not talking about the one who just can’t qualify – I’m talking about the person who can’t fold the laundry the right way, the person who looks different, maybe the minority, maybe the female. If you’re taking care of that person, your self-awareness goes way, way up,”

— VADM Al Konetzni

“When I graduated, I was left with the thought, wow, what a tragic loss. I’ve often thought about those people – what if we had given them the treatment that they needed? Like the kid who can’t fold his laundry. I couldn’t fold laundry properly at the Naval Academy – you know, bouncing a quarter on the bed – I couldn’t do that crap. But I got help. Maybe if they had got some, one of those guys might have ended up being the next ADM Chester Nimitz. But we’ll never know, because maybe we picked on them because of a faux pas, or their ears stuck out, or we didn’t like their religion.”

As Pacific Fleet Commander, VADM Konetzni saw how the practice of winnowing out those who couldn’t cut it was creating a retention problem for the Submarine Force. One-fourth of all first-term submarine Sailors left the service at the end of their enlistments, a total of more than 400 a year. He resolved to change that culture while at the same time building stronger leaders for the silent service.

“I am convinced in any organization that if you are taking care of the weakest – and I’m not talking about the one who just can’t qualify – I’m talking about the person who can’t fold the laundry the right way, the person who looks different, maybe the minority, maybe the female. If you’re taking care of that person, your self-awareness goes way, way up,” he said, his whispering voice betraying how sacred he holds this belief. “You start to understand who you are. You’ll learn interpersonal skills, you’ll read people’s body language, you’ll learn if somebody is suicidal.

“I know the best submarines are where the youngest guy, the guy who just got onboard right out of “A” School feels as if he is as important as the old man. That’s powerful. That is unbelievably strong stuff.” To lower the attrition numbers, he focused on instilling a sense of ownership from the skipper on down, emphasizing the simple principle that “I can’t allow myself to let my troops down. They’re my guys.”

Then, in addition to holding his submarine skippers personally responsible for the tactical acumen and warfighting ability of his ship, he told them, “You better provide for the future of our Navy. And the way you do that is to make sure your people realize how critically important they are.”

Another change during his time in Pearl Harbor was directing his COs to give their Sailors a half-day off in the middle of the week, a mandate that led to plenty of grumbling. VADM Konetzni smiled knowingly in the face of criticism from the waterfront; he’d already shown during his time as CO of Grayling how a cut-back in the hours a submarine crew works in port could lead to higher morale and greater retention of those first-term Sailors without a reduction in standards.

“We got underway on time, every time,” he recalled, with satisfaction.

To do it, VADM Konetzni suggested eliminating the inefficiencies that had been a tradition on many submarines.

“You got your whole damn crew standing on the pier at seven in the morning until about 8:15, you got your little wardroom conclave, then the chiefs gotta get together,” he said dismissingly with a wave of his hand. “I remember this one guy who told me that what pissed him off the most was that even if he only had to hang one tag to clean a precipitator, he couldn’t get it signed until one o’clock in the afternoon.”

VADM Al Konetzni salutingBy the time the admiral was finished, the officers and chiefs would report early to complete the paperwork necessary to allow the Sailors to begin work right away and then be able to depart on liberty once that work was completed. According to VADM Konetzni, re-enlistment rates doubled, due to his direct intervention. Pulling a few strings to keep one particular Sailor on active duty drew some criticism for jumping downa few links on the chain of command, but that Sailor is about to graduate from Old Dominion University with a Navy commission.

“I remember somebody telling me that I’m too easy-going with people,” VADM Konetzni remembers. “I said, what do you think – I’m giving out free beer here to get promoted? I go through the same trials and tribulations as all you other knuckleheads.”

Even his initiative to redirect the way the Navy deploys its forces was done with people in mind. VADM Konetzni’s ideas were crucial in molding the Fleet Response Plan, where regularly-scheduled, six-month deployments are supplanted by the ability to send six Carrier Strike Groups anywhere in the world within 30 days of a crisis, while having two more carrier strike groups ready to sail shortly thereafter.

The Submarine Force, as he sees it, will remain “a jewel in the nation’s arsenal for national defense” and a major part of the Fleet Response Plan.

“It’s the people. We got the brightest officers from the best universities in the United States. We have the best people, the smartest people.”

VADM Konetzni said the Submarine Force will remain necessary to fight the wars of the future by denying adversaries access to the battle space. This will drive decision-makers to build an adequate number of ships. But to operate those ships, he added, you need people – and leaders who understand their value.

“The thing that makes us worth a damn is our moral influence on people.”

From that first day as a plebe to the steamy July afternoon he stood on a pier in front of his shipmates – to leave the Navy better than he found it – that’s something “Big Al, the Sailor’s Pal” never forgot.

JOC Foutch, is assigned to Submarine Warfare Division Public Affairs, and is a Military Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE.

VADM Al Konetzni addressing sailors on sub
Fall 2004 Cover