When I was 21 years old, I had the wonderful fortune of working alongside a man who was already considered a legend in his field. Later, the world would be introduced to him via a hit motion picture. His name was Carl Brashear but I called him Chief – short for Master Chief Carl Maxie Brashear U.S.N. You may never have heard of him but there is a good chance you have seen the movie or a TV program about his life. His life inspired the movie “Men of Honor” and it stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Chief Brashear. It also stars Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron and Hal Holbrook. But, this article isn’t about the movie. You can check that out for yourself and I recommend you rent it soon.
This story is about never giving up. There is already a lot of media talk about how 2008 is going to be a difficult one for business. And, you know what? If you believe that then I can pretty much guarantee it will be – for you. But, if you focus on a goal and tell yourself that you will never, ever give up then I can pretty much guarantee it will be a fine year – for you. So much of what happens in our lives has to do with how we believe and what we value. Chief Brashear epitomized the belief that you never give up. Here is a little of his story.
When he enlisted in early 1948 the Navy had barely been desegregated and after basic training he was assigned to an officer’s mess hall as a steward who served meals and polished the officers’ shoes. But, he wanted something more in life and while watching some divers working one day off an aircraft carrier, he decided that he was going to become a deep sea diver. He applied to school but was told that there were no “colored” divers in the Navy. He responded that they were about to get their first. In 1954, he became the first African American to attend and graduate from the US Navy Diving & Salvage School. He later became a Master Diver and a Master Chief Petty Officer, the first in the Navy.
I met the Chief under strained circumstances. I was planning on being discharged from the Navy in November of 1970 after serving a little over three years. I wasn’t supposed to be discharged until a year later but I was one of thousands who qualified at that time for an early discharge. I was looking forward to starting my career as a civilian photojournalist when out of the blue, I got new orders. It seemed the USS Recovery ARS-43 needed someone with my set of unique qualifications and rank (at least that’s what my commanding officer told me) and I wasn’t getting out early. Instead, I was going to spend another year at sea and I would most likely be going to the Mediterranean for six months. I wasn’t happy.
A few months after I had already reported to the Recovery, Chief Brashear was getting orders to report to the same ship to assume the role of Master Diver. It’s funny how life works out but the coincidence of us getting orders to the same ship would change my life. I wouldn’t appreciate how much until years later.
Shortly after getting settled onboard, I started getting to know the people I would be working with. One of them, a First Class diver by the name of George Caswell brought me up to date on the life of Carl Brashear when we heard he was going to be the new Master Diver. He told me the story of how in 1966, Chief Brashear had been working on the USS Hoist. They were recovering a nuclear bomb that had been lost when two of our planes collided while refueling near the Canary Islands. During operations a rigging line broke and a metal pipe flew and stuck Chief Brashear’s left leg below the knee and nearly sheared it off. He spent the next two years rehabbing his leg which was amputated. But, instead of being discharged or taking a desk job, Chief Brashear was determined to be reinstated as a diver. In April 1968, he became the first amputee to be certified as a Navy Salvage & Rescue Deep Sea Diver. Two years later he and I were to meet up on the Recovery.
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t particularly happy about having to serve another year at sea. But, I made the best of it and quickly gained the support of the operations officer to whom I reported and my commanding officer. In fact, I was given permission to start a ship’s newspaper as we were leaving for a six month “Med Cruise.” Putting out the newspaper gave me a creative outlet and I enjoyed it very much since I had worked as a reporter and a photographer on a daily paper before enlisting. I typed on a manual typewriter using a two-ply spirit master and then ran it off on a ditto machine. The first few issues were mostly about the ports we were visiting with some current event news thrown in. But, it wasn’t long before I decided to start writing opinion pieces. We were somewhere off the coast of Italy when I wrote my opinion about the Vietnam War, President Nixon and the Uniform Code of Military Justice all in one issue.
As newspapers go, it managed to cause one heck of a lot of furor. My operations officer told me it actually caused a shouting match at dinner that night in the officers’ mess. The career men on board (which would include Chief Brashear) were not pleased by my opinions and several shared their opinions of me with me. The next day the captain ended up explaining to me that as a US Navy Petty Officer I was not allowed the freedom to express my opinions about either our commander in chief or the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I think it was my statement that the term “military justice is an oxymoron” that got them most wound up. That was the end of the ship’s paper.
That evening, after word of the newspaper’s cancellation got out, I was on watch in the Combat Information Center (my office) when I got a knock on my locked door. Looking out the peephole I saw it was Chief Brashear. He had never visited me before so I was pretty much expecting he had something to say about the newspaper. But, he didn’t mention it. He just said he was on the bridge and thought he’d stop in to chat. He then wondered if I would like to join him in the boatswain’s locker (his office) after I got off duty to “work out” with him. He had a look in his eye that told me I’d be out of my mind to accept that invitation. He apparently was also not amused by my opinions. I told him I didn’t think I would be joining him and he said okay and that was the end of the discussion. For the next few weeks, I stayed clear of him except when we had to work together and he ignored me except to give me a stare once in a while. Call it détente. But then something happened that changed everything.
The ship was short on its quotient of officers on board and the result was the officers had to stand 12 hours on and 12 hours off watches as Underway Officer of the Deck (UOOD). The UOOD is person who gives the orders on the bridge while the ship is underway. He’s in charge of giving navigation orders, avoiding running into anything, and assuring the safety of the ship and its sailors. One day, the operations officer was complaining about the watches when he flippantly said to me, “You should be standing UOOD watches since you teach us anyway.” It was true that part of my job was teaching new officers some of the things they had to know to qualify as an UOOD. I said I would be happy to do that if the Navy ever decides to let an enlisted person run a ship underway. I didn’t think anymore about it.
Now it so happened that the operations officer was a tenacious kind of researcher. He checked into all the regulations and found that there were none that said you actually had to be a commissioned officer to qualify as an underway officer of the deck. You only had to pass a written test and be certified by the captain. Somehow, he talked the captain into allowing me to take the test. I passed it and the next thing I knew the captain had certified me as a UOOD and I was put on the watch rotation. In those days if we weren’t off rescuing or salvaging, we usually spent time running drills and also shadowing Russian trawler “spy ships” which made for some interesting watches as UOOD.
I was standing one of my first watches (it might have been the first) when Chief Brashear came up to the bridge. We were going through the formal ritual of changing UOOD’s which involved me stating that “this is Petty Officer Poole and I have the Deck and the Conn.” I remember looking at Chief Brashear who had a look of disbelief on his face. He had never seen an enlisted man be given the Deck or Conn underway. It was unheard of at that time.
The following day I found the Chief, once again, visiting my office to chat. He wanted to know how it came to be that I was standing an UOOD watch. And, he wanted to know how he could do the same thing. I told him how there wasn’t any regulation that said he couldn’t and that he could take the same test I took as long as the captain was good with it. I told him I’d help him with the things he needed to know that he wasn’t already familiar with and a few weeks later Master Chief Brashear was certified as an Underway Officer of the Deck.
From that point on we started talking about our lives and our futures when one of us had a night watch and things were quiet on the bridge. I told him how I was going to continue in photojournalism or maybe even studio photography. He told me about his life since being born in Kentucky the son of sharecroppers. He never once complained about the prejudice he faced in becoming a diver. He never bemoaned the loss of his leg. Instead, he talked about never giving up on your dreams and wanting to experience as much as possible in life. I learned that when he wanted to go to First Class Diver’s School, he couldn’t pass the first time because of the math, physics and chemistry needed. He had enlisted with only a grade school education. He enrolled in the Armed Forces Institute and worked for three years to master the necessary science skills. He got his GED and went back to First Class Diver’s School where he graduated third in his class.
He would get excited when I would talk about my future and he encouraged me to do everything and anything I wanted in life. He was one of the toughest men I have ever known. But, he was tougher on himself than anyone else. He didn’t know the meaning of “you can’t do it” and he pushed himself to withstand mental, emotional and physical pain that would break most anyone else because he couldn’t accept giving up. He taught me a lot about not letting someone else take away your dreams.
Master Chief Brashear died of respiratory and heart failure in 2006. How a man with a heart as big as his can die of heart failure is a mystery of nature. His son, Phillip Brashear, said at his funeral that even while dying, his father seemed unwilling to let go of a life built on determination. “Even though his lungs failed him, his heart was still beating.” Carl Brashear showed us all what a human being is capable of accomplishing when he’s faced with overwhelming odds. Think about that when you find yourself thinking about how 2008 is going to be a “tough year” for business. Go rent the movie, “Men of Honor.” You might find yourself saying, “Never Give Up.”