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Paint Out the Numbers

Premiered -- 21 April 2006  


Paint Out the Numbers is a short novel by Dan S. Ward. It is in fact his first novel, written in early 1970, and revised several times thereafter -- the latest such revision in 2005. The first manuscript was based on Lieutenant Ward's experiences in the submarine service of the United States Navy -- including the varied individuals with whom he served. Subsequent revisions were primarily for the purpose of bringing the language up to date and to improve the readability of the novel.

The great advantage of writing about the military -- the U. S. Navy being no exception -- is that the incredible and astounding personalities which populate such stories are inevitably true to life. Furthermore, the combination of individuals with no clue about anything outside the military, and those with somewhat more sophistication in civilian and worldly matters makes for some astounding interactions. Military service also provides one with the opportunity for experiencing and later retelling stories which lead most people -- those without military experience -- absolutely amazed and incredulous. More than in any other place: in the military, truth is stranger than fiction.

One example: In the early 1960's a submarine ran ran into and seriously damaged a parked Volkswagon.

No kidding.

It happened at the Navy's submarine base in New London, Connecticut, at the outset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It turns out that a submarine -- whose name shall remain nameless -- had had it's twin screws removed for repair (i.e., grinding down any nicks in the screws so that they would be less likely to cavitate and in the process make too much noise for the submarine to be appropriately stealthy). When the word came down for all boats to sortie in response to President Kennedy's sudden confrontation with the Russians, the screws were hastily put back on the submarine, and as luck would have it, they were reversed.

In New London, the piers are along the Thames river which is notorious for its strong current. To avoid problems with the current pushing a submarine into a pier when it attempts to back out into the current, the standard procedure had evolved for any submarine getting underway to back out from alongside the pier with considerable dispatch. In this particular case, the submarine did precisely that by going back at two-thirds power, only to find itself suddenly moving forward. The bridge officer then ordered all back emergency! This of course meant that the submarine fairly leaped forward. At the end of the pier and alongside the wharf from which all the piers jutted out into the river... was parked the Executive Officer's Volkswagon, which the submarine ran into as it crashed into the pier on which it was parked.

I've never learned how the insurance company took the news when the officer submitted his collision claim for his munched Volkswagon.

One of the most famous war novels of the Navy variety is The Caine Mutiny. In this novel, the author makes the point that the Captain who seemed to be losing his marbles (pardon the pun), was for the most part a good Commanding Officer... that is to say, during peacetime. It was in the sudden shift into wartime conditions which caused someone not wholly fitted for command to find himself in precisely that position. The reality is that many commanding officers in all branches of the subject are not the exceptional leaders often depicted in many action war movies. They are often relatively normal people who gained their command by the simple expedient of not screwing up as a junior officer.

Leadership is in fact a serious matter of discussion at all levels of military and civilian organizations. Good leadership is, in fact, somewhat rare.

The point of this slight digression is that Paint Out the Numbers is true to the characterizations and the type of experiences encountered in the submarine service in the mid 1960s. It is technically a time of peace -- in terms of who gets promoted -- but it is also a time of (cold) war. It's a time when every officer who has progressed up the ranks as much as an administrator as a leader, is very, very likely to get their own command at some point. It is also a time when these same officers will be expected to far exceed our normal expectations of them.

In terms of setting the stage for Paint Out the Numbers, it should be noted that in the early 1960s the number of nuclear submarines which were operational was relatively few, with most of the submarine fleet being conventional submarines depending upon diesel engines and batteries for propulsion and power. It might be said then that conventional submarines were a class unto themselves, and the actions aboard a nuclear submarine could be expected to be generally somewhat more anal in terms of discipline and the quality of officers running the show.

Or course, an otherwise excellent Commanding Officer of a modern day nuclear attack submarine (attack as opposed to a missile submarine) was cashiered from his command when his boat (all submarines are called boats!) surfaced under a Japanese vessel and caused a significant loss of life. The fact that the problem occurred while hosting several civilian dignitaries -- and which may have contributed to the problem -- was typically ignored in the defense of the Captain. He took the brunt of the responsibility for the incident, while the Admirals who were responsible for having the civilians aboard in the first place, pretty much escaped any and all blame. This scenario is not rare.

In any case, if some things seem strange in Paint Out the Numbers, they are in fact very probable if not typical. While the actual mission of the submarine in the novel is fictional in its entirety, the characters are real, and the likelihood of their actions under such a mission are entirely plausible.

Therefore, let us go back to the mid 1960s, during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and when all manner of covert actions were taking place. It's an overcast day in Yokosuka, Japan...


Opportunity Knocks

The Secret Mission  


At Sea (Literally)

Man Overboard

Bottoming Out

Bad Luck



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