Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
 
10/24/2017
A Hero For The Rest Of Us

As a young naval officer, it took just one great commanding officer on my first ship to show me how special command at sea could be, but it took me more than a decade to decide I might have what it took to do so myself. I suspect I was not alone, because on a certain level, command, like marriage or becoming a parent for the first time, is something that you can’t fully understand until you are in the role. To paraphrase a former boss who commanded at multiple levels, “After a day at sea in command, you’ll know more about the job than what you thought you knew in the sixteen years you’ve been dreaming about it.”

Fortunately, that does not mean that you can’t make yourself better prepared for a job that is more than worth the wait. For me, the combination of some superb leaders at sea, capable instruction at Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS), and the benefit of five sea tours as part of ship’s company all helped get me ready for command – an opportunity I dearly hoped to have and do well.

Another powerful tool that I used, almost unknowingly at first, that helped me prepare for the job was reading – particularly reading about great leaders at sea. From the depiction of Adm. Raymond Spruance in The Quiet Warrior to fictional heroes like Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander, these books helped convey to someone who had never been in command what the great captains possessed.

Despite these powerful literary examples, it is the story of a small corvette led by an unassuming Royal Naval officer during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II that had the greatest impact on me as a naval leader. That book, The Cruel Sea, remains a favorite of mine and is still regarded by many as one of the great novels of the sea.

While the book’s author, Nicholas Monsarrat, who served on corvettes during World War II himself, vividly channels the spirit of a number of characters who fight on HMS Compass Rose, it is his portrayal of the ship’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson, that resonated most with me. Ericson may not be as cerebral as Spruance or as charismatic as Jack Aubrey, but as the reader accompanies him on his first command, his first wartime patrol and ultimately his first command of a multi-ship convoy through more than five years at war, Ericson’s qualities slowly but surely become undeniable.

 

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Of course, those qualities aren’t just apparent to the reader, they are apparent to his crew. In his effort to make his ship as combat ready as possible, Ericson does not compromise or pander, but as he commands in his understated but resolute way, the crew realizes that they are in the presence of someone special.

“They grew almost to love him toward the end of the voyage: he was strong, calm, uncomplaining, and wonderfully dependable. This was the sort of captain to have: Compass Rose could have done with nothing less, and Compass Rose butting her patient way homeward under the blows of the cruel sea, was lucky to have him.”

Ericson is indeed a hero for the rest of us. A veteran of two decades at sea, he is a leader who demonstrates that patience, hard work, and dedication to our craft and our ship, much more likely than brilliance or style, carry the day in an environment where terrible things can still happen to good people at sea. Monsarrat writes all that needs to be written with just a few simple words, “The Captain carried them all.”

Given the book’s subject and the time of its publication (1951), there are some who may find aspects of The Cruel Sea old-fashioned, but setting aside a book like this because it does not align perfectly with our modern sensibilities would be a shame. That which remains timeless and authentic within this book, what it takes to lead, sacrifice and win at sea in the face of a cold and ruthless enemy, makes The Cruel Sea deeply worth reading – not just for future commanding officers, but old ones as well. Surface Warfare Magazine

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