The Legion of Merit Saga


The Legion of Merit stuff: From the CTF-70/77 at-sea staff position, I rolled to Northrop Aircraft. Actually it was Northrop in Los Angeles and all other the places throughout the USA as required.

When I was at Northrop Aircraft on the F/A-18 Program (PMA-265 Rep), I hit the jackpot. Before going there I knew zero about manufacturing and even less about building airplanes. I was very 'up front' with everyone on that score. But Northrop took me under their wing and gave me access to tons of stuff. I had an open book. I really learned a lot thanks to Northrop and hit it off really well there with Northrop and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, the prime contractor.

The first Legion of Merit (LoM) link was given to me on arrival at CNAL (Commander, Naval Air Force, US Atlantic Fleet) and was for 'performance' while at Northrop. This was RADM John Weaver's doing since he had been PMA-265 for the F/A-18 and my boss while at Northrop. The thing that makes the LoM significant is that I was still, technically, a Commander and had not yet made rank as a Captain. It was not then unheard of but unusual for an O-5 to get a LoM. I believed then, and now, the LoM was a pro-offered carrot and not really for me ... but I took it nonetheless.

The job I was taking at CNAL was the Aircraft Engineering Officer Job with oversight on all Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, engines, weapons and other related stuff for the Atlantic Fleet, NATO, 6th Fleet (Med) and elsewhere. I had a great staff who did the real work for me. We had some big stuff going on during this period and, just by being there, I got credit for the work of others. Anyway, when I arrived back at Point Mugu (PMTC) I received my 2nd LoM for the CNAL job. This was also by the hand of RADM John Weaver who came to CNAL from the PMA-265 job.

I had been encouraged, threaten, badgered, begged, harassed, brow beaten etc to go to Washington for a tour. But I was not totally nuts: I resisted and rejected any and all attempts to steer me there and was never ambiguous about it with anyone. My style had/has always been 'frank' and even brutal on occasion. I had even tried to 'retire' as a O-5 but the Navy officially refused. Do you think that PO'ed me a lot? My reason for avoiding Washington was simple: it was 24/7 "Looney Tunes." I chose not to participate.

RADM Gentz, Commander PMTC, even got into the act: he called me in frequently to express disappointment in my decision about not going to DC and saying (closely paraphrased) "look at me, it didn't hurt me at all." Now as blind luck would have it: RADM Gentz made 3 stars (VADM) and briefly held the position as Commander, Naval Air Systems Command (NavAir), the buying agency for all things Naval Aviation ... and ... RADM-select Larry Elberfeld, the fellow who relieved me on the CTF-70/77 staff, made the PMA for a classified airplane program on which I was assigned post-Navy while at Northrop. The kicker: that program had major cost over runs and the then Secretary of Defense, Dick Chaney, fired both Gentz and Elberfeld, after he de-selected Elberfeld from the RADM list. 2 whacks for Chaney. Actually, three since he cancelled the program too.

Toward the end of my PMTC Point Mugu tour but before the 'decision point' for orders, I was again badgered about DC - and as luck would have it, I was 'written up' for a 3rd LoM for the PMTC tour by Gentz. I got a call one day from RADM Dick Finneran, the head of all the Navy's Aeronautical Engineers (AEDOs) - saying unto me (paraphrased): 'congrats Jim, I think you're being selected for the PMA job ..." Replying as I did: (exact quote) "thanks Admiral but I've decided to retire." Responding as he did (direct quote) "good bye" and he politely hung up the phone. Bill was a gentleman.

About 15 minutes later I received a phone call from the AEDO Captain detailer (guy who slates and writes orders for AEDO Captains) - I don't recall his exact words but the atmosphere was super ultra hostile, really berating me and telling me how much damage I had done to the Captain 'slate' for the upcoming year. I could not pretend to care and failed to respond with sympathy. He concluded the call by telling me he was killing my retirement letter and sending me to DC: fat chance! He then slammed the phone down - a very bad move on his part. It's really hard to intimidate me but fairly easy to make me mad.

I immediately called the Retirement Office at BUPERS (Bureau of Naval Personnel) and asked if I could retire per request or did Capt Britches hold my life in his hands? The Retirement Officer said everything was cool and that my retirement was both a privilege and a right. I asked him to go down the hall to see the Captain and advise him of the same thing. Within 5 minutes or so Capt Britches called back, this time screaming in the phone. I returned his favor from the earlier call and hung up on him.

My departure plan caused immediate action: the 3rd LoM was summarily downgraded to a Meritorious Service Medal. A standard joke of the day: "Your Magnificent, Superb, Incredibly Spectacular Award has been downgraded to a letter of reprimand." The DD-214 official Navy record of performance, awards and tours already had the 3rd LoM logged and it was never corrected. Thus: USN = 3 LoMs; JRA = 2 LoMs. I win for accuracy.

OK, your two beers are up. You see what happens when you wind me up?