Fullbore Friday

Culture Matters

One year and a week ago - 05 Feb 2020 - I wrote the below and posted it at USNIBlog as it became clear to me that we may have a pandemic on the way. 

It stands up well. 

As I read it again, it wasn't as much of about the coming pandemic, but in a way - a love letter to my Navy.  

It also is a story Fullbore worthy. I'm going to repost it in full as I wrote it at the time.


Of course our Navy has a distinct culture. Unless you were born in to it – in which case you get a head start on everyone else – you walk in to it as a young man or woman to be shaped by it.

The Navy’s culture slowly changes over time, shaped by its national culture and and trends, but there is a lot of consistency to it that goes back centuries and is universal not just in time – but across borders.

Much of it is formed by the demands of a career at sea. You can see the cross-border navy culture when you meet people from other nations who serve in their navy. You are usually just a minute or two from a shared experience or story. Heck, my wife found herself half way through a dinner with a young woman we were hosting when she found out her husband happened to be a LT in the Chinese Navy, AKA PLAN.

Even navy wives from different nations have the same issues, stories, and way of making fun of their husbands’ shared quirks. Even a retired USN CDR and a serving PLAN LT have similar personality quirks I came to find out.

Eventually, all Sailors come ashore – but we don’t leave our Sailor habits behind. If you service just one tour or a few decades of service, some habits and ways of doing business at sea will always be with you.

A great example from a century ago – a time of the last great pandemic – is an under-told story about a retired US Navy officer who kept his culture with him to the furthest reaches of the planet to a small job in a forgotten corner … and saved the lives of thousands.

If you ever wonder what skills you will bring with you might be of any use to the world outside the Navy, just think of John Martin Poyer, USNA class of 1884.

After an uneventful career, he was medically retired from the Navy in 1906 as a Lieutenant Commander due to ill health.

Before it was all said and done though, in “retirement” he would find himself promoted to Commander and receive the Navy Cross.

Why? Well, you know why.

From the blog West Hunter;

John Martin Poyer, an officer that had retired from active duty due to illness, was brought back to active duty in 1915 to serve as Governor of American Samoa.

The 1918 influenza pandemic hit every country on Earth … Worldwide, the Spanish Flu killed 3-5% of the population … In the South Pacific, the flu was spread by the SS Talune, which regularly visited Tonga, Fiji, American Samoa, and West Samoa. Crewmen had picked up the flu in New Zealand and spread it to those ports, excepting American Samoa.

…here is when that Navy training kicked in;

Washington didn’t micro-manage American Samoa, not being all that interested. A policy of benign neglect was interpreted by Poyer as an opportunity to act on his best judgment, in the finest traditions of the US Navy. He imposed quarantine. That was harder that it sounds, because of the frequent family visits between West Samoa and American Samoa – but Poyer also had the support of the local chiefs, who understood how serious imported epidemics could be. The people of American Samoa self-blockaded, on top of official quarantine: they sent out canoes to stop any and all visitors. They never had a single case.

Why was that so different than other islands?

American Samoa was physically quite close to Western Samoa, less than 100km. …

The islands of Western Samoa were administered by New Zealand, which had recently seized them from Germany. The administrator (Colonel Robert Logan) had little administrative experience (former sheep farmer) – he felt that he needed approval from Wellington for any action and he received no instructions. Medical officers also waited for instructions – none came. In addition, plantation interests were important, and they opposed any quarantine, which was also the case in Fiji. So, no quarantine. Thing went very badly: so many were sick (~90% of the population) that few were left to care for them. Since food was mostly in gardens, rather in cupboards, people starved while weak. … 20-25% of the population died, concentrated among young adults, the highest death rate in the world. 

No one in the Navy can stand a micro manager. I think it is because it isn’t just it is a horrible environment to work in, but because we know it is foreign to what is our natural culture.

Have good officers. Help them know how to have sound judgement and give them the authority to act on it.

Hey, it saves lives.

From his Navy Cross Citation;

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Commander John Martin Poyer, United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility as Governor of American Samoa, for wise and successful administration of his office and especially for the extraordinarily successful measures by which American Samoa was kept absolutely immune from the epidemic of influenza at a time when in the neighboring islands of the Samoan group more than 10,000 deaths occurred, and when the percentage of deaths throughout the Polynesian Islands as a group, is reported to have ranged from 30 to 40 per cent of the population

As a side note, if you find yourself at Arlington National Cemetery, you can find Commander Poyer’s grave in Section 2, Site 1182.

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