After spending time reading some entertaining, amusing, and moving diaries of American servicewomen, I thought I’d go back and re-read my own diary from my deployment to the Barents Sea on HMS Sheffield in 1994. The Sheffield deployment was special. Only one American intelligence officer was selected to ride a British combatant as the U.S. liaison officer for that mission each year – usually the officer in the billet at the Atlantic Intelligence Command that I had been filling.
I had to fight to get that deployment. My supervisor wanted to send a man, one of the lieutenants that I’d been supervising for the past year. No American woman had ever made that deployment. I appealed over his head to the commander (O-5) in charge of our section. The Royal Navy, I pointed out, had opened service on all its combatant vessels to women in 1990, so the host nation had no restrictions. Clinton had repealed the Combat Exclusion Law in 1993, so no American law prevented me from going. While women were not permanently assigned to American naval combatants yet, a few were in the training pipeline, and I’d gone out on an American naval combatant as a “ship rider” – extra staff for the ship’s intelligence shop – earlier that year for a naval exercise. I had extensive experience working with the Royal Navy from the earliest days of my first tour of duty; I knew some of the staff in the intelligence section of the Royal Navy headquarters because of my duties in the job that I was filling; and I’d been to London to brief British submarine crews at the Ministry of Defence before their deployments. The male officer that my supervisor wanted to send had no experience working with foreign counterparts at all. As it turned out, the senior intelligence officer assigned for Sheffield‘s mission was a woman: Lieutenant Commander Carol Tyrrell. That may have been the deciding factor. The commander bought my arguments and signed my orders. I joined ship for workups on the 21st of June.
I must have been a little bit worried about spending July 4th aboard a Royal Navy vessel. Before I left – this was long before ships at sea could connect to the Internet, and three years before the creation of the Google search engine – I copied the entire text of the Declaration of Independence into the first pages of my journal. Our British counterparts are our closest military allies, and yet the relationship is not entirely an easy one. In 1942 the U.S. War Office printed a little handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain – a kind of etiquette guide introducing British customs. The War Department dispensed excellent advice to American G.I.s about avoiding offense to their already war-weary counterparts, whose belts had long been tightened and whose salaries were low. The book also directed G.I.s not to brag that U.S. troops had come over and “won the last one” for them.
(The U.S. War Office also offered this interesting commentary on British servicewomen:
“British Women at War. A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and ‘carried on.’ There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.
“Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.”)
My diary entry was…disappointing. I didn’t think of myself as a writer of anything but intelligence products in those days, and had no idea what interesting tidbits I’d wish two decades later that I’d recorded. It says only: “A little ribbing and a lot of good wishes from the crew on Independence Day.” I think they sang “The Star Spangled Banner” for me at dinner that night: the officers’ mess on Sheffield was a jolly, collegial place. We always had a soup course and wine with our evening meal, and there was much laughter. Sometimes there was even singing, led by the weapons officer – an excellent pianist and baritone.
I finished up the page with a description of how admired and respected the commanding officer, Commander Simon Gillespie, seemed to be among the crew: he’d spent more than an hour in Combat Control early that morning, and the watch section clearly enjoyed his company. There was also a short note about the other British intelligence lieutenant, my counterpart. I’d noticed early in workups that he hadn’t been trained as an all-source intelligence analyst or briefer, and that he didn’t seem to understand how to read the intelligence traffic; he was also a year or so junior to me. But as a host national and a man he seemed to expect deference, even if his facts and analysis were dead wrong. He was not interested in collaborating on briefings or products, or in anything I’d learned in five years of intense study and daily observation of Russian naval operations in the Barents Sea. I also think I was rather unkind to him after a few disagreeable incidents. In retrospect, he probably understood better than I did that we were in a sort of competition, even if we weren’t being ranked against each other on formal evaluations. He was wanted to appear brilliant and to advance his career in his own navy, of course, and I wanted an enthusiastic recommendation from a seagoing commander that would help me lobby for permanent assignment to a U.S. naval combatant when the billets opened up in 1995. I could have been more gracious. So could he. But on that the Fourth of July, he at least “stayed out of my hair all day.”
The diary page ends: “Happy 218th, America.”
Happy 239th, America. And Happy Fourth to you readers out there. Be safe and enjoy the day!