Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"Using Abusive Or Domineering Language"

How times have changed. The Royal Navy of legend was known for strict discipline -- the recent movie "Master and Commander" highlighted this. In the past, if a British warship crew felt they were being abused by their Captain, their only recourse was to do what the officers and crew of HMS Bounty did to Captain Bligh... cast him adrift.

Not anymore -- now they can have him brought up on charges. According to this story from TimesOnline, a former CO of the attack submarine HMS Talent is being court martialed under the Naval Discipline Act for verbally abusing his crew during a recent "highly sensitive secret mission" (here in the U.S., we'd say "mission vital to national security"). Excerpts:

"Defence sources said that the allegations did not involve physical abuse. It is understood that up to five crew members have accused Captain Tarrant of abusive treatment, and that he has been charged under the Naval Discipline Act. Captain Tarrant is no longer the submarine’s commander, and now has a senior Navy appointment at the MoD’s head office in London.
"Naval sources said that for commanding officers in a surface ship or submarine, there had to be a careful line between running a tight regime and using abusive or domineering language. It was also true, they said, that Armed Forces personnel were now more aware of their rights, and more likely to make allegations against senior officers if they felt that the line had been overstepped.
"Legal sources with knowledge of the case said that the alleged incidents had occurred during a period of high tension on board the submarine while it was engaged in a sensitive mission. One of the reasons for the application for the court martial to be held in camera is the MoD’s reluctance to make public either the nature of the mission or the location of the submarine at the time of the allegations."

The article goes on to discuss earlier cases of abusive COs in the Royal Navy, as well as other submarine-related discipline problems (including the story of a CPO on HMS Talent showing up drunk for duty on Christmas Day).

Abusive COs, of course, are not limited to the Royal Navy, but they seem to be a dying breed. Less than 10 years ago in the U.S Sub Force, the CO of USS Florida (SSBN 728) was relieved for abusive treatement of the crew. (Interestingly, this story, about CDR Michael Alfonso being mean to his crew on a normal Trident patrol, seems to have essentially disappeared from the 'net: you can read one vignette on this page, if you scroll down to the November 24 entry; it's also about 3/4 of the way down this Russian page.) Here's how one leadership book describes what went on aboard USS Florida during this time:

"The atmosphere in a Trident nuclear submarine is generally calm and quiet. Even pipe joints are cushioned to prevent noise that might tip off a pursuer. The Trident ranks among the world’s most dangerous weapons—swift, silent, armed with 24 long-range missiles carrying 192 nuclear warheads. Trident crews are the cream of the Navy crop, and even the sailors who fix the plumbing exhibit a white-collar decorum. The culture aboard ship is a low-key, collegial one in which sailors learn to speak softly and share close quarters with an ever-changing roster of shipmates. Being subject to strict security restrictions enhances a sense of elitism and pride. To move up and take charge of a Trident submarine is an extraordinary feat in the Navy—fewer than half the officers qualified for such commands ever get them. When Michael Alfonso took charge of the USS Florida, the crew welcomed his arrival. They knew he was one of them—a career Navy man who joined up as a teenager and moved up through the ranks. Past shipmates remembered him as basically a loner, who could be brusque but generally pleasant enough. Neighbors on shore found Alfonso to be an unfailingly polite man who kept mostly to himself.
"The crew’s delight in their new captain was short-lived. Commander Alfonso moved swiftly to assume command, admonishing his sailors that he would push them hard. He wasn’t joking—soon after the Florida slipped into deep waters to begin a postoverhaul shakedown cruise, the new captain loudly and publicly reprimanded those whose performance he considered lacking. Chief Petty Officer Donald MacArthur, chief of the navigation division, was only one of those who suffered Alfonso’s anger personally. During training exercises, MacArthur was having trouble keeping the boat at periscope depth because of rough seas. Alfonso announced loudly, “You’re disqualified.” He then precipitously relieved him of his diving duty until he could be recertified by extra practice. Word of the incident spread quickly. The crew, accustomed to the Navy’s adage of “praise in public, penalize in private,” were shocked. It didn’t take long for this type of behavior to have an impact on the crew, according to Petty Officer Aaron Carmody: “People didn’t tell him when something was wrong. You’renot supposed to be afraid of your captain, to tell him stuff. But nobody wanted to.”
"The captain’s outbursts weren’t always connected with job performance. He bawled out the supply officer, the executive officer, and the chief of the boat because the soda dispenser he used to pour himself a glass of Coke one day contained Mr. Pibb instead. He exploded when he arrived unexpected at a late-night meal and found the fork at his place setting missing. Soon, a newsletter titled The Underground was being circulated by the boat’s plumbers, who used sophomoric humor to spread the word about the captain’s outbursts over such petty matters. By the time the sub reached Hawaii for its “Tactical Readiness Evaluation,” an intense week-long series of inspections by staff officers, the crew was almost completely alienated. Although the ship tested well, inspectors sent word to Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan that something seemed to be wrong on board, with severely strained relations between captain and crew.
"On the Trident’s last evening of patrol, much of the crew celebrated with a film night—they chose The Caine Mutiny and Crimson Tide, both movies about Navy skippers who face mutinies and are relieved of command at sea. When Humphrey Bogart, playing the captain of the fictional USS Caine, exploded over a missing quart of strawberries, someone shouted, “Hey, sound familiar?”
"When they reached home port, the sailors slumped ashore. “Physically and mentally, we were just beat into the ground,” recalls one. Concerned about reports that the crew seemed “despondent,” Admiral Sullivan launched an informal inquiry that eventually led him to relieve Alfonso of his command. It was the first-ever firing of a Trident submarine commander. “He had the chance of a lifetime to experience the magic of command, and he squandered it,” Sullivan said. “Fear and intimidation lead to certain ruin.” Alfonso himself seemed dumbfounded by Admiral Sullivan’s actions, pointing out that the USS Florida under his command posted “the best-ever grades assigned for certifications and inspections for a postoverhaul Trident submarine.”

Now I'm not sure if the crew of HMS Talent underwent similar "abuse", but I do know that in the last 10 years, all Western navies have seemed to go more in the direction of not letting senior officers get away with being abusive jerks. Before that, they might give the CO a talking to, but he wouldn't normally get fired. My shipmates on USS Topeka (SSN 754) during the '91-'93 period, under He Who Must Not Be Named, know what I'm talking about.

Going deep...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite was the day brownies were on the menu. At the end of the deployment (and two days to home port) the flour was gone, so the supply guy provided ice cream instead.

"Where's my brownies?" arose the cry.

The supply guy scurried off to get some brownies. About 1/2 hour later, he came back with a plate of "Brownies." They were brownish in color, relatively flat, and oh so appealing to the eye. Only the CO took one, took a bite and left.

When asked why he didnt't try a brownie, one of the JOs commented, "I don't know how to cook, but I'm pretty sure brownies take flour."

1/07/2006 8:14 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our second CO on Olympia was noted for literally cussing out the Nav over the 27MC, cussing out the Eng over the 2MC, stomping into Control and cussing out the OOD in front of all the watchstanders, threatening to throw the OOD down the scope well (again, in front of all the watchstanders), &c, &c, &c. When I took the message boards to him in his stateroom and knocked on his door, he would grab the boards from me and throw them across the room onto his bunk.

Why didn't we ever think of doing this?

(Granted, we did get off to a bad start with him - within 24 hours of the change of command we'd had a man overboard, oil pumped into Norfolk harbour, and a successful Z5O. But from that day until the day he left, as far as he was concerned the crew was totally f**ked up and nothing was ever going to make him change his mind, no matter how many people transferred and were replaced or how well we did on any inspections.)

RM1(SS) (ret)

1/07/2006 12:31 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it true that enlisted sailors sent to nuc. power school avoided the rigors of basic submarine school? Was Alfonoso one of those?

1/07/2006 1:29 PM

Blogger PigBoatSailor said...


Enlisted nukes do not go to Basic Sub School, true, but Alfonso was an ossifer, so he had to go.

1/07/2006 4:46 PM

Blogger half said...

As gawd as my witness, I'll never trust wikipedia again.

1/07/2006 5:20 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

pigboatsailor, Alfonso was originally enlisted, right? So, he went to officer submarine school and missed the comaraderie thing, as well as the strict (in those days, at least) pyschological testing non-nuke, enlisteds got. Get it?

1/07/2006 10:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alfonso may have been the first submarine CO to ever be relieved just for being a a**hole. Until then, I thought it was a prerequisite for Command...

1/08/2006 7:50 AM

Blogger bothenook said...

Alphonso! holy crap, i haven't heard that name in a while. he was the engineer on the 642 (?) during a non-refueling overhaul at mare island. (editorial note: i worked way too many boats to remember them all in 15 years on the shipyard). i got stuck working his boat as the shift test engineer waaaaaay more than i liked.
we used to call him the spit breathing dragon. i got thrown off the boat for a while when i called him on some inane B.S. i think my comment was "you mustn't have been an enlisted watchstander for very long, otherwise you'd recognize how stupid what you just said was."
they let me back on to to the crit and power.

1/09/2006 7:49 PM

Blogger Kocsis Family said...

There was a story in the news today (10/26/07)of a submarine CO being relieved of command. This made do a search on Mike Alfonso, which led me to this site. I was an ELT on the USS Grayling when Mike was the Engineer back in the 80s. Long after I got out, I heard about him being relieved of command. The most amazing thing to me was that he ever got a command. He was quite an arrogant jerk when I dealt with him. He also was not very competent. He apparently did his JO tour on a 688 boat, and basically never bothered to learn much about a 637 class submarine the whole time he was Engineer. It was comical what the guy didn’t know. I was one of a handful of guys who he seemed to lean on technically, so he wasn’t too bad to me. There were issues back then with him and JOs, and we had several fail to re-up in a row. I recall some kind of investigation that involved Mike in all this. Like I said, I was surprised that he made it all the way to getting his own boat.

10/26/2007 5:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting reading this about Mike Alfonso. I just heard about this the other day and had to look it up. The funny thing I guess is that after he left the Navy he is now working at a Nuclear power plant, in ohio. And he is still an arrogant a**hole.

11/29/2007 3:05 AM

Anonymous trf said...

After telling a colleague a sea story I had to find some information to back it up, so I did some searching and found this site. It is a good read.

Alfonso was the temporary XO on PCU Santa Fe when I was on board. He struck me as a little odd, and would sometimes say things to put JOs on the defensive, but I didn't feel put upon at all. Maybe because the shiftwork took up so much time and energy I tuned everything else out.

But from the sound of it he was from the same leadership school as the CO we had on the US Grant, my prior boat. His stock in trade was the kick to the side of the head from the top of the sail if the OOD wasn't fast enough when repeating his orders. Once he told me to skip the verbatim repeat back and just say the order over the MC circuit. I was happy to do so to protect my head. Turnovers and message routing also led to flying objects. We were powerless back then, we just had to take it.

12/07/2007 10:55 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found this thread by searching for Alfonso. In your referenced article, which I found to be quite amusing, PO Baker was fired because of a drinking problem. As a level III grad, he had an accident one early Saturday afternoon and was found to have a BAC 3 times the limit. Its probably still in the Silverdale,WA public record. At that time, the Navy had no choice but to let him go

9/18/2008 6:27 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

True he supervised at Perry Nuclear Plant in Ohio. Sharp dresser but really stupid. One day during a backup diesel teardown, he came walking into an FME zone with a coffee and donut just looking around. No one had ever seen such a thing. He was instantly famous. Now he is also fired.

10/07/2008 12:53 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Alphonso had the worst Napoleon Complex of any midget submarine officer I've ever met. I was greatly relieved to find out that he had been quickly relieved of command.

Before he was XO of a boat, Alphonso had been XO of the S1C prototype in Windsor Locks. Typically, that wasn't a billet for a hard-charger, but for a geeky nuke that needed two years of shore duty somewhere, anywhere.

When Alphonso was an XO, his CO kept a pretty tight lid on his stupidity. It's just too bad for the Florida that his CO didn't simply fire him.

1/02/2009 4:35 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alfonso is now in canada. Working for AECL. Anyone have old pictures of him?

4/06/2010 8:13 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, he was the Naval Engineering instructor at University of Arizona, NROTC. He was a dope then. During a volleyball match he was making crude comments about how hairy and manly his chest was and how the Middies didn't have any. If I remember he had some sort of speech problem. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy! Bear Down Mike and enjoy the Great White North!

6/02/2010 3:29 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fom personal experience Mike Alfonso has not changed by being at AECL in Canada. His absolutely uncalled for tirade one day prompted someone to Google him and we were amazed to findout he had been fired from a Nuclear Sub command. I think he is better suited for his side career as the Travelocity Gnome. Can we tade him back to the US for a bag of pucks?

8/04/2010 7:56 AM

Anonymous 646 Nuke said...

Like "kocsis family" (Hi Charlie!), Mike Alfonso was my eng on 646. A truly vile person, wholly unfit for command. A shoot the messenger type, with a serious Napoleon complex. And, as previously mentioned, not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to nuke ops. Then again, our XO wasn't either, and he got command of 694 and 22. Prior to my discharge I told our CO (a really good guy) that Alfonso was psychotic. He agreed.

11/04/2010 4:50 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

When he was releived, did the crew do the "Carlton" dance?

8/02/2011 6:26 AM

Blogger anon said...

Well Mike Alphonso is continuing his on-going stupidity working in S.C. at a nuclear plant. He continues trying to be the strict enforcer of his many tirades.

1/13/2012 6:44 AM


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