Wednesday, July 06, 2005

“Pipe the Admiral Over the Side”

There is an old naval custom that involves a tribute to any person holding command of a naval vessel and those of flag rank – Commodore, Admiral, Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral, Fleet Admiral, and the one-time rank of Admiral of the Navy held only by George Dewey, the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish American War.

Prior to electricity, rapidly alerting the crew of a naval ship to emergencies, or the routine turn of the clock, involved the beating of a drum, the blowing of a fife, or a small, shrill steady toned whistle, called a bosun’s (shortened form of boatswain) pipe. The pipe is able to produce different pitches based on how the piper holds the pipe in his hand, and different combinations of notes, and how long they are held, or whether they are trilled or not convey a message.

When one of the officers noted above arrives at a naval ship, or departs from one, there is a ceremony conducted at the quarterdeck. [A quarterdeck is any place designated as the location of the entryway for boarding or disembarking from a ship.] A small party of sailors, or Marines, if there are any aboard, are gathered there to line the side of the ship and render a salute as the officer comes aboard the ship, or departs from it. At the command, the sailors or marines salute, and the bosun starts to pipe. The salute, and the piping is held until the officer has fully come aboard ship, or when leaving the ship, until the top of his head becomes lower than the deck as he descends into a waiting boat. This custom is called manning the side. It is a sign of respect to a command authority. In the U.S. Navy, command authority is not given, it is earned. And the path to command is often filled with roadblocks, setbacks, and events totally beyond one’s control. For those who make it, it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Yesterday, we lost a shining light from more recent naval history. Vice Admiral James Stockdale, USN, Retired, Annapolis ’47, passed away at age 81. Admiral Stockdale followed the path to flag rank through the Naval Aviation branch. He flew fighters and fighter-bombers from the decks of US Navy aircraft carriers. For his valor and heroism in the service of his country, James Stockdale was awarded numerous citations, including two Purple Heart medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Star Medals and for his extreme sacrifice during eight years of captivity in the Hanoi Hilton, James Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor. No Naval officer of flag rank has ever matched that record. As a young man, Stockdale developed a keen interest in the Roman philosopher Epictetus, and during his captivity, it was the stoicism of Epictetus to which Stockdale clung, openly defying his North Vietnamese torturers.

Admiral Stockdale accepted the request of H. Ross Perot to join his campaign for president in 1992, as Perot’s running mate. In his initial public address, Admiral Stockdale candidly opened with the remarks, “Who am I, and what am I doing here?” The press, and political opponents belittled and mocked him for his candor, yet this man of extreme courage remained steadfast to the end of the campaign, and quietly went back into private life. This man of great personal character, courage, and class, died yesterday after a long fight with Alzheimer’s Disease, a true and great American hero in every sense of the word.

One last time, let us pipe the Admiral over the side.

“Attention on deck! Hand salute! Pipe! Two!”

“Stockdale, departing.”