U.S. Navy and back to the future Star Power

Flash: the U.S. Navy plans return to teaching celestial navigation.
U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School 100th graduation class in 1966.
U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School 100th graduation class in 1966.

In my view, this is one of the smarter moves the Navy is making to ensure its ability to safely navigate no matter what and no matter where.

In the early 1960s, at OCS, we learned the basics of both piloting and celestial navigation in just 16 weeks–and these were just two of many required courses.  At the time, one in three would be “rolled out” prior to commissioning.

Lining the 1,200 members of Class 57 up on the “grinder” on September 17, 1961, the Academic Director ordered us to “Look to your left” … then … “Look to your right” … (pause) … “one of you will not be here in February…”  More than the cutting wind that was sweeping down over the “Coddington College of Nautical Knowledge” that blustery morning, those words sent chills down our spines.   Somehow, especially mine.  I had worked for over four years to get to that grinder.  For sure, I was determined to leave wearing a gold stripe and not just a white “crow” no matter how proud I was of the Crow and my new “hash mark” showing I had over four years of honorable service.

In fact, my worst moment at OCS was during a “P-works,” an intense 45-minute practical exercise during which we calculated our position using celestial navigation techniques. Facing a 45 minute deadline, and under pressure, I raced through the arithmetic calculations, during which I added 12+8 equals 18.

Since that error occurred early in the calculations cycle, every subsequent value that I derived from the tables was slightly in error, and the error grew as the calculations continued. Needless to say, my fix was significantly inaccurate.

My grade that week went into the tank and caused me great concern since in order to be commissioned we had to maintain a 2.5 average in every course all of the time. For the next week I was on academic probation, my commission hanging by a thread based on a simple arithmetic addition error during a celestial navigation examination.  Things were so serious that I had “the talk” with my fiance’ Faith Raymond.  I asked her whether, if I were to be “rolled out” of OCS, whether my being a Petty Officer instead of an Ensign would change things.  It would not, she assured me.

Fortunately, the next week was Thanksgiving and the dreaded P-works – usually scheduled for a Thursday – was canceled. Instead, the  grade for that week depended solely on a quiz on celestial navigation and piloting. My grade: 4.0. I was back on track to move from E-1 to O-1 (Ensign), a journey I had begun at age 17.

She married a Petty Officer any way, on December 22nd.  I was wearing a Midshipman’s uniform by then, but my official Navy rank was HM2.  That was changed to Ensign on February 9th.

Standing an Officer of the Deck (underway) watch on the bridge of the USS F. D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) in 1963. The Rosy was deployed to the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean at the time.

Fast-forward, after six months advanced training as a Combat Information Center watch officer, I was ordered to the USS F. D. ROOSEVELT. Within a few months I was standing OOD watches on the bridge, as well as my duties in CIC. Shortly after I was promoted to LTJG, the captain transferred me from CIC to Assistant Navigator. In addition to our many other duties, every day shortly afternoon, as the “N-Division Officer,” my Chief and I would review the data behind the celestial navigation fix that we were required to obtain every day. In between those fixes, or when weather conditions prevented celestial observations, the ship was “DR-ed,” or dead reckoned using piloting techniques.

The article makes it sound as though celestial navigation is the only way to obtain a fix. Not so, there are numerous ways to do so, and we used many. I can remember in the middle of the Atlantic, pinging with the depth finder to the ocean floor many thousands of feet below, and watching for the recorded depths to be reflected in the topography shown in our charts of the bottom. Officially, that was not a fix, but was circumstantial evidence to support our dead reckoning.

When we were deployed to the Mediterranean, about once a week we would rendezvous with a replenishment group. This consisted of a differing mix of ships deployed to bring us fuel, ammunition (from small arms to special weapons), and food. The Operations staff’s involved in planning tried to pick a quiet sector of the Mediterranean – out of typical sea lanes – in which to station the replenishment group on a given course and at the typical replenishment group speed of 12 knots. These two factors were typically called Romeo Corpin and Romeo Speed, after the Romeo flag signal we flew at the dip as we approached the particular ship on which we were to take station, and then two-blocked as we came along side.


Needless to say, there were no satellites to give us a sense of false security regarding where we were in relation to everything else around us. We were able to rendezvous with the replenishment group based on the most accurate fixes we had gotten, followed by accurate dead reckoning, and finally by radar data when we were within that range.

We were even able to gather a great deal of information from the character of electronic signals from various ships that was picked up while we were still “over the horizon.” It was called “Passive ECM,” and consisted of listening with very specialized equipment to electronic signals and being able to generate a profile of the types of electronic equipment on whatever unit might be on a given line of bearing. Since each type of ship – including different nationalities – is equipped with a different mix of electronic gear that gives off signals (electronic emissions), our CIC teams had electronic profiles on virtually every ship we were likely to meet.

Destroyer alongside USS F.D. Roosevelt (CVA-42) during a Sixth Fleet deployment to the Mediterranean in 1962.

A special operations order was always generated for each replenishment evolution. This information included the formation, course, speed, and the order in which each ship was to be alongside the other. From what ever direction we approached the replenishment group, the “station” toward which we were navigating was always 3000 yards astern of the destination vessel.

As we approached that point we had calculated the advance and transfer of our big ship which was always doing 25 kn at that point, so that when we made the turn on to the replenishment course we were heading toward that vessel’s stern at 25 knots and maneuvered to stay 180′ to port of her wake. Because we were overtaking that ship at 13 knots relative speed, it did not take long to close the distance.

Meanwhile, the closer we came to the replenishment ship, the less accurate the radar became. It was a phenomenon called “sea return,” and it looked like intense white snow in the middle of your radar repeater screen.

However, that really wasn’t a bother to those of us who had done this so many times before. We had the ship’s stern light to use as a guide for our intended distance abeam to port of 180 feet.

In addition, at night, as I was making my approach to the oiler (AO), the reefer (AF), or the ammunition ship (AE), you would find me on what we called the “starboard wing,” of the bridge. This open-air extension of the bridge allowed me to look fore and aft, as well as straight down to the water some 65 feet below me. More importantly, at night, I was able to use this vantage point to keep an eye on the bright, shimmering green pathway – or so it seemed to me – created by the phosphoresing wake of the other ship. It was called using “Seaman’s eye” but it was pretty damn good.

Of course, I was not the only pair of eyes watching that phosphoresing wake. Too much was at stake and “zero tolerance” for failure was certainly in effect. As the wardroom understatement went, “a collision at sea, could ruin your whole day.”

In addition to watching the distance between our ship and the shimmering green phosphorus wake of the replenishment ship, my ear was glued to the sound power telephone that was set on what we called the JL circuit – the circuit on which all of the ship’s lookouts were connected. In particular, the bow lookout was on high alert to report instantly when our bow was abeam the other ship’s stern. As soon as that information had been relayed to me, I yelled to the Lee Helmsman to “make turns for 12 knots.”
Rapidly, the big carrier would begin to slow and before we had overshot the replenishment vessel, our bridges would be abreast of each other and the process of sending over lines to establish communications and transfer could begin.

We conducted these underway maneuvers many times during any given deployment. We didn’t use satellites, and frequently we would turn off all of our electronic gear that admitted signals – Emcon Alpha – and use celestial navigation and dead reckoning to move our ship to where it was needed.

The reliance today on satellites and highly complex electronics, all of which are vulnerable to compromise or destruction by an enemy, can also leave us highly vulnerable, particularly if our ships and Surface Warfare Officers are not trained in more traditional methods of navigation and seamanship.

As the article rightly points out, losing satellites could badly compromise or eliminate satellite navigation.  Funny, I trusted the star fixes, but the GPS readings that came later, were suspect.  As the article points out, satellites are vulnerable.  They can be hacked or “taken out” in a variety of ways.

But with training, a sextant, the right tables and a handful of stars or a noon day sun, the cosmos will tell you where you are on planet Earth.  As long as you keep in mind that 12 + 8 = 20 and not 18.

© Tracy D. Connors 2015-2022 All Rights Reserved

About Tracy Connors

Tracy D. Connors graduated from Jacksonville University (AA), University of Florida (BA), the University of Rhode Island (MA), and Capella University (Ph.D. with Distinction, human services management, 2013). Ph.D. (Honorary), Leadership Excellence, Jacksonville University, December, 2013. Designated a "Distinguished Dolphin" by Jacksonville University, Feb. 2, 2010.