Mobile Riverine Force Reunion
Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
July 3, 1999
Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to say a few words at the 1999 Mobile Riverine Force Reunion.
As noted in the introduction during my thirty three years on active duty, I was fortunate enough to have command of three ships. USS White River (LSMR-536) was the first and the best. I was assigned to recommission White River in 1965 when I was finishing up a three year tour as a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. This assignment was an awesome responsibility for a 28 year old Lieutenant. I would have a crew of 134: seven officers, counting myself, 40 petty officers and 87 non-rated on their first assignment after boot camp. The officers, with the exception of myself, had less than two years service in the Navy and no one had any idea how to run this 20 year old class of ship that had been out of commission in the mothball fleet for over ten years. It was a learning experience for all of us. As an aside, my three years as Commanding Officer of White River comprised the only time in my career that I never heard the words, " That isn’t the way we did it on my last ship." There was only one way to do anything, the way we learned together as we, and the fleet training group, sorted out how we ought to do things on this unique class of 222 foot long 1100 ton ship, containing 110 tons of ammunition, mostly stored above the waterline, while the crew slept below the waterline and transited through unsecured magazines in order to perform any function from getting to berthing to eating to using the head. These ships were armed with eight antiquated rocket launchers, a 5"/38 caliber dual purpose gun mount, two twin 40mm antiaircraft machine guns. We had a power plant consisting of 4 diesel generators and two 16 cylinder General Motors 278 cu in displacement locomotive engines for main propulsion, which as a matter of interest used a rather unreliable air clutch to reverse the ship’s twin screws. The crew members that are here with us today have many stories, most nearly forgotten, except when we are reminded by one another, of the trials and tribulations associated with a transit from San Diego, where we underwent refresher training, which for a new ship should probably be renamed, to our new home port in Yokosuka, Japan, to shuttling back and forth to Viet Nam for tours as part of a planned continuous two ship presence on the gun line, providing close in fire support up and down the coast and in the estuaries.
Just keeping the ship running was a challenge but we provided the required fire support in spades, firing over 55,000 rounds of 5" spin stabilized rockets in support of efforts ashore and in the rivers. Regardless of what the revisionists say about the US involvement in Viet Nam, my crew underwent hardships that the sailors of today couldn’t survive and wouldn’t tolerate, in order to do what we were ordered to do by our elected officials. We learned that we could accomplish virtually anything that we were asked to do in any conditions. Even though over thirty years have slipped by and the vast majority of the crew went on to successful careers in or out of the navy, nearly all state that their time aboard White River was the defining point in their lives. I know that my three years as Captain of USS White River was the defining point in my career and in my life. I am proud of my crew, what we accomplished and of our part in the effort in Viet Nam. In fact when the Naval Institute recently asked me for my most meaningful tour of duty, I proudly listed my time as C.O. of what one of our spotters called the greatest little ship in the Navy, USS White River.
However, I don’t want to let this opportunity to speak with you to degenerate to a series of self congratulatory remembrances without any message. Although I am proud of my crew and what we accomplished. I am not as proud of what we as a Nation have allowed to happen to our armed forces since I left active duty in 1992.
Over these seven years, we as a nation have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. However, the armed forces of this nation have been called upon to respond to crises an average of once each 3½ weeks, which is three times the rate experienced during the Cold War. We currently have our forces engaged in military action in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and Korea. We have crises which could require military effort both in the Indian Subcontinent and the Korean Peninsula. While the Armed Forces are being used at an unprecedented rate, the following has occurred: Since the 1992 election the Armed Forces of the United States has decreased by:
Ÿ709,000 active duty personnel
ŸEight standing Army Divisions
Ÿ20 Air Force and Navy Air Wings with over 2000 combat aircraft
Ÿ232 Strategic Bombers
Ÿ13 Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarines with 3114 nuclear warheads in 232 missiles
Ÿ500 ICBM’s with 1950 warheads
ŸFour Aircraft Carriers, and
Ÿ121 Surface Combatant Ships and Submarines
We currently have a Navy comprised of 340 ships, the fewest since 1917, the year before we entered the First World War. Our shipbuilding rate of five per year is the lowest since the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, despite unprecedented prosperity in the country. When I came on active duty 40 years ago, we had a Navy of 1200 ships, with 5000 in reserve. At the current shipbuilding rate, with a nominal 25 year life of a ship, we are on the road to a 125 ship Navy. Which means that our ships are deployed more frequently than ever. Even with the reduced number of ships, we are sending ships on deployment with between 10 and 20 percent of the crew missing. This adds insult to injury, as it increases the work load during the more frequent deployments of our forces with the result that people are leaving the services in unprecedented numbers. The Navy is short 20,000 people in sea going billets, the Air Force has implemented a stop loss program , where no one with a critical skill can voluntarily separate or retire. We are being committed to another peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, as we speak, where four years ago we entered Bosnia for a "six month period".
In the words of LTG Tom Griffin , USA (ret.) in response to a media question last month:"Now let’s see if I understand all this correctly. President Clinton has ordered our forces to engage an entrenched, politically motivated enemy, backed by the Russians on their home ground in a foreign civil war, in difficult terrain, with limited military objectives, bombing restrictions, boundary and operational restrictions, queasy allies, far across the ocean, with uncertain goals, without prior consultation with congress, the potential for escalation, while limiting the forces at his disposal, and the majority of Americans opposed to, or at least uncertain about the value of the action being worth American lives. So what was it that he was opposed to in Vietnam."
Further, on 28 April, during the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, Congress by large majorities voted down a resolution supporting the air strikes, as well as motions to declare war on Yugoslavia and to stop the bombing. In other words the direction from those charged with making such decisions was to: not go ahead, not go back and not stay where we were in Kosovo. Congress which is the only body constitutionally permitted to declare war, remains silent or, at least, confused, while the current administration unilaterally disarms the country, unloading weapons through the muzzle, wearing out the equipment and the people without refurbishing any of our diminishing defense assets. The current administration has been instrumental in turning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most successful defensive alliance in history, into an international human rights vigilante. The United States has been instrumental in encouraging NATO to bomb a sovereign country, because of their treatment of an ethnic minority. We used forces and bases of NATO member Turkey in this military intervention. Turkey, where the repression of the 10 million member Kurdish minority in Turkish Kurdistan, has resulted in an estimated 28,000 deaths in the past 10 years. I guess I am confused, also. Ethnic cleansing is bad in Yugoslavia, but OK where we need bases?
When I was at War College in 1974, the senior officer class spent a great deal of time studying history and to trying to determine when it made sense for this country to spend national treasure and risk the blood of our service men and women in pursuit of national goals. The answer we came up with was "When it involves a vital national interest. However, that merely moved us to the next question, as there was no standard definition of a vital national interest. We developed one that I think is adequate, if not excellent: "A vital national interest is something that is critical to the maintenance of this Nation as a viable political and/or economic entity." You might notice that my definition of a vital national interest did not include prestige of our chief executive, or diversion of attention from something that might prove embarrassing or even career ending for that same Chief Executive.
One of the fundamental problems associated with what is happening, the unloading of weapons through the muzzle in pursuit of questionable goals, is that in doing so the current administration is closing out the options of using armed force for succeeding administrations. Clinton has the option of using military force as a foreign policy tool because his predecessors: Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy and Eisenhower made the investment in ships, aircraft, combat systems, bullets and training to pass on to their successors. His failure to replenish these assets and instead to deplete them closes out the options for succeeding administrations regardless of party.
I am proud of my part in Viet Nam, proud of the crew of White River and of each of you. However, I am concerned about what I see happening to our great country. The country is asleep and we need people to do more than just say "Sleep Well America!"
What can we do? We can be heard. When selected members of congress were questioned as to why the let the shipbuilding program slip to its current deplorable state by the Navy League, the members response was that no one seems to care. When Congress cuts shipbuilding they don’t hear anything from their constituents, however, when it is hinted that Social Security or Medicare might have problems, they are deluged with mail, calls and telegrams. We need to have the same kind of response to the continuing reduction of our Nation’s ability to defend itself and execute a rational foreign policy.
Thank you for your kind attention.