NavWeek: Time of the Ancient Mariner

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This is the first of a special two-part series of articles on Adm. Robert Papp, who leaves as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard this week after guiding the service through tumultuous times.

From an early age, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp seemed destined to be either a Marine or a mariner – meant to rise to the top of either profession.

The course to get there was neither straight nor narrow. Like many a sea yarn, Papp’s career rode crests and troughs as he transitioned from the ship bridge to the D.C. beltway, leaving him often uncertain of where he’d wind up, but unwavering in his commitment to the service and professionalism.

The son of a Marine Corp Korean war vet, Papp had his own set of dress blues by the time he was three. There’s a picture of father and son, both wearing their USMC best – a recruitment poster in the making.

“There was a period my dad had nearly convinced me I should be a Marine,” Papp recalls. “He did only nine years active duty, but he really was a Marine his entire life.”

Meanwhile, when Papp was in second grade in 1960, a Coast Guardsman – who recently had graduated from the academy and was serving on a homeported cutter in New London, Conn. – was renting an apartment with his wife in the nearby Papp family farmhouse.

“He took me out on an overnight cruise,” Papp says. “They were going out to do some memorial and they were allowed to bring out family.  I went out and fell in love with it. I wanted to go to sea. It was my dream then to go to the Coast Guard Academy.”

When his father left the Corps to become a state trooper and took the family out to the barracks in Groton, Conn., they would drive past the Coast Guard Academy and see the service’s white tall-ship training barque Eagle there and the young Papp would dream of one day commanding the stately vessel at sea.

Like other kids at that time, he joined a band – as a drummer – and played sports, especially football, where he excelled as an offensive lineman. He harbored dreams, like many do, of being a musician or an athlete. But he could never escape the call of the sea.

Marine or mariner?  “I only applied to two schools. One was the Coast Guard Academy; the other was Naval Academy.”

In the end, the Coast Guard won out. If Papp’s father was disappointed, he never said so.

“My dad was kind of stoic guy,” Papp says. “I’m sure he was proud, but he was the sort of guy who didn’t express it much. He certainly would tell me when I was not doing the right thing. And if I was doing the right thing, that was what was expected to me.”

Such a code would serve Papp well as he rose up the Coast Guard ranks. But during his academy days, he was having trouble meeting expectations.

“The academy was hard academically,” he recalls. “I wanted to get out and start working in the fleet. All of these academics were in the way. The dean of academics pulled me and said, 'You’re joining my team now.' He made me stop playing football. I buckled down.”

He made it through, but he was no star. “I didn’t graduate very high in the class.”

There were immediate repercussions.

“In those days, the number-one guy got to pick first and you worked down. I ended up in Alaska on a cutter.”

He loved the opportunity. His wife, Linda, was less impressed. She was the daughter of a Coast Guard officer and academy instructor and her world had revolved around that New England enclave.

“It was an adventure for me. I don’t think it was as much an adventure for my wife. When we were engaged and leading up to first assignments, New York and Boston went very low in class, so I told her it would probably be New York or Boston.”

As he remembers it, the conversation went something like this:

“’We’re going to Alaska.’”

“’What?!’”

He says, “It was a bit of shock for her.”

But, he adds, “She would tell you it expanded her horizons as well. It taught her to be self-reliant. I was gone all of the time. She was on this little island in the Aleutian chain. It forced her to meet people. It prepared her.”

It prepared him, too.

“It was one of those inflection points, a seminal moment,” he says. One of many that would shape his career.

Nothing would rival the weather he battled on the Bering Sea. Being stationed in Alaskan waters was like being transported back in time when the sea life dripped with romance and meant daily dances with danger.

“I saw [the] frontier,” he says. “It opened up my eyes. It was literally the farthest I could go from home for my first assignment. We pulled into Nome Alaska, during the Bicentennial celebration in ’76. There were Alaskan state troopers who looked like cowboys. There were native people who came into town.”

He was at sea – and loving it. As he always knew he would.

Papp took those lessons and built on them, rising through the chain.

“I’ve always welcomed responsibility,” he says. I was the oldest of four children. My father always gave me responsibilities growing up. Every group I’ve belonged to, YMCA, Boy Scouts, band or football team, I was always the captain or the president. I’ve just got this attitude: somebody’s got to run the show. I want to do it. I want to lead. I want that responsibility.  If I’m not getting my job down, hold me accountable.”

His overriding goal was to be a Coast Guard ship captain. But other officers wondered if he was setting the bar too low.

“I was a lieutenant, an 03 when I got my first captain’s job, commanding a small buoy tender homeported in New York. And the captain, an 06, very senior guy, came up to me at a party and said, ‘So Lt. Papp, how do you like that job down there on that ship?’ I said, ‘Sir, I would be willing to stay a lieutenant for the rest of my career if I could stay in that job for the rest of my career.’

“He wrinkled up his brow and said, ‘Well, lieutenant, I have to agree with you, I always thought there should be room in the Coast Guard for people who lack ambition.”

Papp says, “I was being somewhat facetious but, not that much. He didn’t get it. I would have been happy to do that job for a long, long time. I had a great ship, a great life.”

It was the kind of life he always wanted. “It was sort of the romanticism of being a ship’s captain. A ship’s captain is the closest we come in modern day, at least in a democracy, to being a dictator. You’re given – and we do it in the Coast Guard at very young ages and with very junior people – you are given tremendous authority. You are given broad responsibilities. And you are held accountable for your performance.”

Lessons learned on the job can prove very costly.

“When you are on a ship at sea, you’ve got no one to turn to,” Papp notes. “You’ve got to make decisions. You’ve got to understand what your mission is. You have to train your crew for it. You have to work in a harsh, unpredictable and unforgiving environment. That sort of challenge gives me a rush. When you’re a ship captain, you’re only one collision or one grounding away from losing you job – you’re expected to make sure that never happens.”

In doing that job, in living that life, though, he discovered something else that would touch an even deeper chord. “I found out what it means to be a Coast Guardsman. The mission began to turn me on. Being a cutterman was my community, my mission.”

He learned from the mistakes of others just how important it was to be as proficient sailor and officer as possible. The Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga River sank after being struck by a freighter on the Potomac River near the Chesapeake Bay.

Most thought the mishap was an anomaly that befell an old training ship. But then the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorne collided with a freighter about a year later, resulting in 22 deaths.

“After I read that investigation, I saw a lot of similarities,” Papp says. “Poor training, poor standards, poor navigation standards, lack of formal qualifications. And as I read the investigations, I thought back over my first assignments and I thought there but for the grace of God go I.”

He knew the horrible truth. Cuyahoga and Blackthorne were not aberrations. They were due to systemic problems. True, Coast Guardsmen were no longer the hard-drinking, hard-driving lot left over from the Vietnam era that Papp had encountered when he first entered the academy. But there was still a lack of professionalism.

He wondered for the first time if he had made the right decision by joining the Coast Guard, and whether he should stay in the service.

As the U.S. Coast Guard suffered a rash of accidents and mishaps due to an apparent lack of proficiency and professionalism, Capt. Robert Papp seriously considered getting out before his own luck ran out.

Then, he thought, “I can make a difference. I can train my people; I can make sure my ships are in the proper condition. I used the aviation community in the Coast Guard as my model for what we should be doing in the fleet. The aviators had set the gold standard for training, for standardization, configuration control and very rigorous processes to prepare their flight crews and their pilots.”

Other commanding officers also wanted a more proficient, professional fleet. The service began to take notice, and to change course. “They started a commanding officers school,” he says, “They evolved policy on navigational standards, and qualification standards –- all to professionalize our cutter fleet.”

Papp would become a proficient cutterman and serve as a ship’s captain four times through his career. He would spend about a decade at sea, learning the importance of proficiency while Linda remained at hamo, drawing on her first days in Alaska and other experiences to be the proper captain’s wife. “When we were gone, the wives or spouses always turned to her.”

Papp went through another career inflection point at the 20-year mark, while he still had a commander’s rank.

“I had just come off being captain of a medium-endurance cutter” he says. “There had been back-to-back mass migrations -– Haiti, Cuba, Haiti again.”

With those operations, Papp says, he began to see the fruits of the changes wrought by the service to develop a more professional fleet. “At times we had 15, 17, 18 Coast Guard cutters down there, steaming continuously doing very rigorous operations. We couldn’t even come into port. They were steaming Navy oilers and resupply vessels through there.  We would unrep, refuel at sea.  We would launch helicopters three, four times a day. We were sending boat crews out recovering thousands of Haitians and Cubans, and there was not one single mishap. It was the height of our professionalism.”

But for Papp, it was exhausting work.

“For a couple of years I had been spending 210 days a year away from my homeport, I was completely worn out. I got off ship in ‘95 and Linda and I said, ‘I don’t know if this Coast Guard thing is going to work out. We were on a vacation in South Carolina and we bought a lot down there. I figured –- I got my 20 years in, I could retire, live down there and find something to do. I was tired. I was beat.”

But the Coast Guard reeled him back to do a project at headquarters on a buoy replacement. He still had a soft spot for tender sailors. “I figured I could pay back. And I figured maybe that could help prepare me for a life after the Coast Guard.”

They kept the South Carolina lot, but never did build a house there.

Four months into the buoy replacement assignment, the Coast Guard brass came to Capt. Robert Papp with one of the most coveted jobs in the service. “They said, ‘We have a vacancy for a commanding officer position. You’re going to the Eagle.”

He’d be the captain of the ship of his boyhood dreams.

Read NavWeek: The Time of the Ancient Mariner (Part 2).

USCG, Brown, Telfair H. PA1

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